China denies work planned for monitoring station in South China Sea shoal

Beijing should be cautious about construction in the disputed waters or risk damaging newly improved ties with Manila, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 10:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 March, 2017, 11:11pm

Beijing on Wednesday denied reports that it would start work this year on an environmental monitoring station on a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The denial countered a report in state-run Hainan Daily on March 13 quoting the mayor of Sansha, which administers a vast part of the sea. The report prompted a protest from Manila, a competing claimant to the area.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said reports about the construction of such a station in the shoal were “not true”.

“With regards to the Scarborough Shoal, China’s position is consistent and clear. We place great importance on Sino-Philippine relations,” Hua said.

Hainan Daily quoted Sansha mayor Xiao Jie as saying China would begin preparatory work this year on monitoring stations on a number of islands, including the Scarborough Shoal.

Philippine Justice Minister ­Vitaliano Aguirre said on Monday that Manila would file a complaint against Beijing’s plan to install a station on the shoal.

Aguirre also said the Philippines would renew its strong ties with Washington in the face of China’s aggressive action in the shoal.

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Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Manila would be suspicious of such a monitoring station because it could be dual-purpose.

“Data on water salinity and atmospheric conditions at sea, for example, is not only useful for furthering public knowledge. It could also be used to plan and execute military operations,” Koh said, adding that a permanent monitoring station would be able to transmit data in real time.

Satellite images from US think tank the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative suggest China has stationed missiles and radars on some of its seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, waters also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Chinese analysts said Beijing should be cautious in the sea to avoid a strong backlash from ­Manila.

Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian ­affairs analyst from Jinan University in Guangzhou, said: “Ties ­between China and the Philippines have only just warmed and are not very stable. The complaint from the Philippine officials reflects the lack of basic political trust between the two countries.

Manila expects China to build on Scarborough Shoal

“This is understandable because bilateral ties had been very poor in the past few years. So now is a very tricky time for both sides and Beijing needs to be very careful about what it says and does.”

Xu Liping, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Beijing should consider Manila’s position given the abundance of distrust.

“China and the Philippines had a very difficult time during the administration of former Philippine president Benigno Aquino,” Xu said. “The distrust hinders deeper cooperation between two countries, and Beijing should take the Philippines’ concerns into consideration when monitoring the South China Sea.”