Philippines concerned over report of China construction on reefs

MANILA, Dec 21 (Reuters) - The Philippines on Wednesday said it was seriously concerned about a report of Chinese construction on four uninhabited features in the disputed Spratly islands, news that Beijing dismissed as "unfounded".

The Philippines foreign ministry said such construction would go against a 2002 Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea, in which China and Southeast Asian countries pledged to avoid actions that could escalate disputes, including occupying uninhabited shoals, reefs, islands, cays and other features.

The ministry said it would try to validate the report by Bloomberg, which cited unnamed western officials as saying maritime militia controlled by Beijing had been involved in construction work at Eldad Reef, Lankiam Cay, Whitsun Reef and Sandy Cay.

The Spratlys are one of the world's most contested archipelagos, with competing claims from the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and China.

Some islands are inhabited by small communities from several of the countries, ostensibly to reinforce their claims. Some are close to artificial islands constructed by China and equipped with buildings, runways and missile systems.

China's embassy in Manila called the report "fake news", while its foreign ministry reiterated a "solemn consensus" had been reached among claimants that included not developing uninhabited reefs and islands.

"China has always strictly adhered to this consensus. At present, China-Philippines relations are developing with a good momentum, and both sides will continue to properly deal with maritime issues through friendly consultations," spokesperson Mao Ning said at a regular news briefing on Wednesday.

Lankiam, known in the Philippines as Panata island, is one of the nine Philippine-occupied features in the Spratlys, while Whitsun has been a source of diplomatic tension, with Manila irked by what it calls a "swarming and threatening presence" of Chinese fishing boats in its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

Referring to the Chinese vessels, State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday said the United States stood with defence ally the Philippines in upholding a rules-based international order.

Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila and Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by Martin Petty

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