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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 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 actions have alarmed China's rival claimants and the United States, especially after reports that Beijing was installing missile systems on the man-made islands.
"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 might change if China undertakes construction or turns 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 would 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 that China had no plans to build on Scarborough.
Yasay grudgingly gave details of Xi's pledge when pressed by reporters. Duterte and other officials have not disclosed full details of the meeting and have tried to avoid any confrontational language to foster warmer relations with Beijing.
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.
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 that 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 international arbitration, a move that was rejected by Beijing. The arbitration tribunal in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping territorial claims in the South China Sea based on historical grounds last July, adding that China had violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Scarborough.
Beijing ignored the Philippine arbitration victory. Duterte has said he will 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 in Beijing contributed to this report.
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