By Rosemarie Francisco and Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - China's planned occupation of a disputed shoal in the South China Sea is aimed at expanding its territory ahead of a regional agreement governing maritime rules, the Philippines' top diplomat said on Wednesday.
The Philippines believes China has jeopardized peace and stability in Southeast Asia with its latest incursion, said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and he urged Southeast Asian neighbors to speed up talks on a binding code of conduct (CoC) that will govern behavior in the sea.
The Philippines will be filing a diplomatic protest against China after it discovered concrete blocks on the Scarborough Shoal which Chinese ships have been occupying since April last year, he said.
"We think that China is trying to stay ahead of the CoC, " del Rosario told Reuters in an interview in his Manila office. "We think that they have an assertion agenda that they are trying to complete before they are able to sit down and negotiate a CoC."
"There are some sectors that believe China's delaying action on the CoC is a strategic procrastination on their part ... because the CoC looks forward, not back."
Tension over the South China Sea, one of the world's most important waterways, has risen as China uses its growing naval might to assert its extensive claims over the oil- and gas-rich sea more forcefully, fuelling fear of a military clash.
Four of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping claims with China. Taiwan also has claims over the entire sea.
"This kind of activity places the region in jeopardy in terms of peace and stability," del Rosario said.
"If the Philippines is the target of China today, another country could be the target tomorrow. So this should be considered as a regional issue."
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Tuesday he had "no information" about the latest Philippine accusation of an incursion on the shoal.
China and the Philippines accuse each other of violating a 2002 declaration of conduct, a non-binding confidence-building agreement on maritime conduct signed by China and ASEAN.
Del Rosario said the latest Chinese activity in Scarborough Shoal, about 125 nautical miles off the Philippines' main island of Luzon, was discussed at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, where fresh surveillances pictures were shown.
"If we looked back to what they did in Mischief Reef, this could very well be a repetition of what happened there," he said, adding the latest incursion was "a significant and larger challenge" for the country.
In February 1995, the Philippines discovered a cluster of huts in half-submerged Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, 130 miles off its coast. Several years later, the shelters which China had said were meant as a resting place for fishermen, had been turned into a multi-level concrete fortress.
Philippine officials said the concrete pillars and blocks in Scarborough Shoal appear to have been dropped from an aircraft, describing them as possible material for permanent structures.
It could be the first case of occupation of an uninhabited feature in the South China Sea since the 2002 code was signed.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)