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May 27, 2017

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Manila says Beijing reclaiming land in disputed sea

MANILA, Philippines -- The Philippines has protested China's reclamation of land in a disputed reef in the South China Sea that can be used to build an airstrip or an offshore military base in the increasingly volatile region, the country's top diplomat and other officials said Wednesday.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told The Associated Press that the Philippines lodged the protest against China last month after surveillance aircraft confirmed and took pictures of the reclamation and dredging being done by Chinese vessels at the Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands, which Manila says violates a regional nonaggression pact.

China replied to the Philippine protest by saying that the reef belonged to it, he said.

Del Rosario said it was not clear what China would build on the reef, which Manila claims as part of its western province of Palawan, but that one possibility was an airstrip. A senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the issue, said China could also build an offshore military and resupply and refueling hub.

"We're not exactly sure what are their intentions there," Del Rosario said.

Chinese Embassy officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The discovery of the reclamation, and the possibility of China building an airstrip in the reef, called Chigua by China and Mabini by the Philippines, would likely raise alarm among rival claimant countries because it would bolster Beijing's naval and air force mobility in a South China Sea region far from the Chinese mainland.

Johnson Reef, located in a vast, bean-shaped submerged coral outcrop, is also claimed by Vietnam, which maintains several nearby military installations. Chinese and Vietnamese forces fought a deadly naval battle in the contested region in 1988.

The senior government official said China's reclamation was first detected by air force planes six months ago. Philippine aircraft searching for a missing Malaysian jetliner in March also spotted the continuing reclamation on the submerged Johnson Reef by at least one Chinese ship backed by smaller vessels.

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