Philippines downplays China dispute

By LORIEN HOLLAND  |  March 24, 1995
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BEIJING, March 24 -- The Philippine ambassador in Beijing downplayed Friday the significance of Manila's destruction of Chinese buildings on the disputed Spratly Islands while the two sides were holding talks. 'This was a coincidence,' Ambassador Romualdo Ong said in response to Thursday's announcement that Philippine forces blew up the buildings. 'Sino-Philippine relations are good and stable,' he said. 'There are occasional humps in the relations, but both sides are determined to tackle the problems between us through peaceful bilateral relations.' Ong said the Philippines received no protest from Beijing over the destruction of Chinese structures and markers on the Half Moon and Sabrina reefs, which lie 80 miles (130 km) off the Philippines. 'Initial reports were somewhat misleading when they spoke about a bombing,' he said. 'When you read about a bombing the immediate image that comes to mind is an aerial bombing, but what happened is there that Philippine forces removed foreign markers on certain atolls very near to Philippine territory.' But on Friday, Gen. Arturo Enrile, chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, said Philippine warplanes bombed Chinese buildings and markers inthe Spratlys. Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan, China and the Philippines all claim sovereignty over at least some of the 230 South China Sea atolls and reefs that make up the Spratly Islands. But China's extensive claims over the archipelago, which is more than 625 miles (1,000 kilometers) off its southern coast, and its war of words with both Vietnam and the Philippines over the islands, have sparked sharp concern over Beijing's intentions in the area.

Manila and Beijing's main dispute is Mischief Reef, lying 155 miles (250 km) off the Philippines, where China has recently built four buildings that it claims are fishing shelters. Manila put its military on alert in February and Beijing promptly invited Philippine officials to meetings in Beijing. The two sides wound up three days of 'frank and cordial' talks on the hotly disputed Spratlys on Wednesday without agreement but with the promise of more talks to come. 'The reef is of acute concern to the Philippines and even if the structures are not military, it is of little comfort,' said Ong. 'These are structures built by somebody else on a piece of land that we claim as ours.' 'Our claim is based on discovery, settlement and geographical proximity to our shores,' he said, adding that the reef was incorporated into Philippine territory in 1978 under a presidential decree. 'Neither side is prepared to yield sovereignty, but the fact that we have agreed to further talks means that the matter is still under discussion,' Ong said. Manila maintains that the new Chinese buildings on Mischief Reef do nothing to foster a climate of confidence that would be conducive to the eventual resolution of the dispute. But Beijing claims the buildings are no cause for concern. 'As long as peace and tranquillity are maintained, the countries concerned will have access to a peaceful environment for developing their economic cooperation,' said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Shen Guofang. The Spratlys straddle major shipping lanes in the South China Sea and sit atop a major oil and natural gas field.

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