China says no monitoring station on disputed island

BEIJING: China is not building an environmental monitoring station on a disputed South China Sea shoal, the foreign ministry said Wednesday, apparently denying remarks made by a local official last week that prompted a request for clarification from rival claimant the Philippines.

Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said reports about the facility on Scarborough Shoal had been checked and were found to be false.

"That does not exist at all," Hua told reporters at a regularly scheduled news briefing.

The official Hainan Daily newspaper had quoted the top official in Sansha City, which administers China's island claims, as saying that preparatory work on the station was among the government's top priorities for 2017.

Such a move would likely renew concerns among Beijing's neighbors over its assertive territorial claims in the sea. Calls to Sansha government offices rang unanswered Wednesday.

Beijing seized tiny, uninhabited Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. Manila said Wednesday it had asked for a clarification of the earlier remarks by Shansha Communist Party head Xiao Jie.

Acting Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo told Filipino reporters in the Thai capital, Bangkok, where President Rodrigo Duterte is visiting, that his department asked for clarification of the reported planned construction on Scarborough Shoal.

"I think the president has been very clear — we want to have a peaceful, diplomatic settlement of disputes but we will not fail to protect our national interests if necessary," Manalo said.

Asked if a diplomatic protest would be filed, he said Manila will wait for China's reply.

But Manalo said he considered it a good sign that China was interested in concluding a framework for a "code of conduct" with 10 Southeast Asian nations that aims to peacefully manage disputes in the South China Sea. He said there could be progress on the framework when China hosts a meeting in May.

China's construction and land reclamation work in the South China Sea have drawn strong criticism from the US and others, who accuse Beijing of further militarizing the region and altering geography to bolster its claims. China says the seven man-made islands in the disputed Spratly group, which it has equipped with airstrips and military installations, are mainly for civilian purposes and to boost safety for fishing and maritime trade.

Prior to the announcement, South China Sea tensions had eased somewhat after Beijing erupted in fury last year following an international arbitration tribunal ruling on a case filed by the Philippines. The verdict invalidated China's sweeping territorial claims and determined that China had violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Scarborough Shoal.

China has since allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal following Duterte's calls for closer ties between the countries, but it does not recognize the tribunal's ruling as valid.

In her remarks, Hua reiterated Beijing's desire for good relations with the Philippines, a U.S. treaty partner that has been drawing closer to China since Duterte's inauguration last year.

China will "cherish the good momentum of the bilateral relationship and will be committed to pushing forward the sound, steady and rapid growth of the relationship," Hua said.

Scarborough has no proper land mass and any structure on it would likely have to be built on stilts. Known in Chinese as Huangyan Island, it lies about 200 kilometers (120 miles) west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, and about 600 kilometers (370 miles) southeast of China.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, which straddles one of the world's busiest sea lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas.