China has established a “maritime rescue center” in the West Philippine Sea, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday.
The rescue center was opened Tuesday in Fiery Cross Reef or Kagitingan Reef, one of the Beijing-occupied artificial islands in the Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea.
“The center will offer better support to maritime rescue operations in the southern part of the South China Sea,” Xinhua said, quoting the Chinese government.
Earlier this month, China launched ecological protection facilities to restore coral reefs in the Panganiban and Zamora reefs, both of which belong to the Philippines.
Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told CNN Philippines that China’s move only legitimizes the establishment of its military bases in the area.
University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told CNN Philippines that China’s move only legitimizes the establishment of its military bases in the area.
“It is trying to mask its militarization of the area by highlighting possible civilian benefits or public goods provided by their artificial islands,” Batongbacal told CNN.
China has occupied the Kagitingan Reef since it occupied it in 1988.
In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights in areas being contested by China within Manila’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone or the West Philippine Sea. But China refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction and rejected the arbitral ruling.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would not contest the establishment of a rescue center on Philippine territory because it could help distressed seafarers.
“Maybe this is a humanitarian facility that will benefit seafarers in distress,” Lorenzana said.
Even with China’s plan to expand its facilities in the contested seas, Lorenzana said tensions between Manila and Beijing would be reduced.
“Considering everything, I think I’m happy with that. What we can achieve is to lower the tension there. No misunderstanding, no miscalculations between troops, so there would be no trouble,” he said in an interview with GMA News.
The establishment of the so-called rescue facilities came two months after the installations of three weather stations in the resource-filled waters.
In November last year, Chinese Foreign Ministry Lu Kang announced that Beijing has started the operations of a maritime observation center, a meteorological observatory, a national environmental and air quality morning station in the artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana previously admitted that the country is currently incapable of inspecting the structures over the disputed waterways.
President Rodrigo Duterte has already called on Southeast Asian leaders to practice self-restraint over the West Philippines Sea in order to “avoid actions that may complicate the situation further.”
Meanwhile, Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua said China is looking forward to another meeting between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The ambassador said Xi invited Duterte to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in China in April.
“We are looking forward to the seventh meeting between the leaders of our two countries,” he said during a speech in Makati City.
Should the Filipino leader attend the forum and meet Xi, Zhao expressed confidence this will chart “a more magnificent blueprint” for the China-Philippines bilateral relations.
Zhao also said the improved ties saw an increase in tourist arrivals from China and progress in China-funded infrastructure projects in the Philippines. With PNA