MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' top diplomat said Thursday any move by China to transform a Manila-claimed shoal into an island would be a "game-changer" in blossoming relations although he added that Beijing has pledged not to undertake any construction in the strategically located area of the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said in response to a reporter's question that any Chinese construction in Scarborough Shoal would be "a very serious, provocative act" that would undermine the Philippine claim to the rich fishing area.
China has turned seven mostly submerged disputed reefs into sprawling islands, including three with runways, in the last three years. The aggressive actions have alarmed China's rival claimant governments and the United States.
"If they would do that, that will really be a game-changer," Yasay replied when asked in a news conference how President Rodrigo Duterte's friendly demeanor to China could change if China undertakes constructions or turn Scarborough Shoal, which lies off the northwestern Philippines, into another island.
"There seems to have been a threat before or a perception that they were going to build, in fact, there were intelligence reports coming from the Americans that they were poised to send dredging vessels precisely to convert this ... shoal into an artificial island," Yasay said, but he added he did not expect China to take such a provocative step.
"Now we are happy and assured of the fact they will not do so," he said.
Five months after Duterte made a state visit to China, Yasay disclosed for the first time that Chinese President Xi Jinping had told the Philippine leader during their meetings in Beijing that China had no plans to build on Scarborough.
The assurance was part of efforts by the Asian neighbors to rebuild ties that led to Filipino fishermen regaining access to the shoal last year, he said.
Duterte, who took office in June, has reached out to China and prioritized economic engagement with the Asian economic powerhouse, avoiding confrontational language over the territorial disputes to foster warmer relations with Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing, however, that Yasay's remarks appeared to contradict agreements reached between Xi and Duterte in China last year, adding the statements go against the "steady and rapid growth of China-Philippine relations.
"China thinks they are baffling and regrettable," Geng said. "We hope Mr. Yasay can follow the agreement reached by the two leaders as well as the common expectation of countries in the region, watch his words and actions and genuinely strive for good China-Philippines ties and regional peace and stability."
The U.S. military has been closely watching Chinese activities in Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized in 2012 after a dangerous standoff with Philippine vessels. The shoal lies near a vital passageway leading to the Taiwanese Strait and the East China Sea south of Japan, another American ally territorially at odds with China.
Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, brought the Philippines' disputes with China to an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, which in July invalidated China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea and ruled that China violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Scarborough.
Beijing has ignored the landmark Philippine arbitration victory. Duterte has said he would not press the Chinese government to immediately comply as he rebuilds relations with China but added he would take up the decision with Chinese officials later in his six-year term.
Associated Press writer Louise Watt contributed to this report from Beijing.