BEIJING – China rejected a suggestion by the Philippines on Monday for a regionwide ban on construction in the South China Sea after Beijing began building a school on a rugged outpost it created to strengthen its claims to disputed waters.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he will propose that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations call for such a moratorium. "I think we would use the international community to step up and to say that we need to manage the tensions in the South China Sea before it gets out of hand," del Rosario said.
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that the Philippines was making "irresponsible remarks." She said China was committed to resolving issues with countries on a bilateral basis, and that island disputes between China and the Philippines were not an issue for ASEAN.
Hua said the Philippines was constructing its own facilities in the Spratlys, an island chain which is claimed by both countries, having announced plans to upgrade a runway and naval facilities and build an airport.
"The Philippines has been taking provocative actions to escalate tensions on the one hand, and making irresponsible remarks about what China has legitimately done within her sovereign rights on the other," Hua said. "That is totally unjustifiable."
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, and parts of it are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia. Some see the competing claims as a possible flashpoint for a major conflict.
On Saturday, China began building a school on the largest island in the disputed Paracel chain to serve the children of military personnel and others, two years after it established a city there to administer the South China Sea area it claims, including potentially oil-rich islands.
Vietnam also claims the Paracel chain. Tensions in the area have escalated since China placed an oil rig last month in waters about 30 kilometers (20 miles) from the islands, leading to confrontations between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels.
Del Rosario told ABS-CBN News that China is accelerating its "expansion agenda" in the South China Sea to get it completed before ASEAN countries and China draw up a code of conduct that sets rules to prevent incidents in the region.
He said a suggestion from Danny Russel, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, for a freeze in activities which escalate tensions in the area while a code of conduct is being worked out is "a reasonable approach" and one "I would like to initiate."
Since China created Sansha city on tiny Yongxing Island in July 2012, it has built an airport and roads there. It also has a 24-hour satellite TV station and its own supply ship. By December, the city had a permanent population of 1,443, which can sometimes swell by 2,000, according to the Sansha government.
On Sunday, the Philippines announced it had recently protested land reclamation by China in McKennan-Hughes reef in the Spratlys. In April, Philippine officials protested after discovering Chinese vessels had reclaimed a large patch of land in Johnson South Reef, also in the Spratlys.
Associated Press writers Teresa Cerojano and Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.