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Tuesday, March 23, 1999 Published at 15:11 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Spratly facilities 'not for military purposes'

John McLean in Manila: "Chinese warships and Phillipine warplanes keep a wary eye on each other"
The Chinese delegation at talks about the Spratly Islands has said that buildings put up by Beijing on a reef claimed by the Philippines were not for military purposes, nor directed at any country.

The future of the disputed Spratly Islands is being discussed by the Philippines and China during a two-day meeting in the Philippine capital, Manila, which ends on Tuesday.

[ image:  ]
The Philippine Government accuses China of building military facilities on Mischief Reef, an outcrop of land lying 140 nautical miles from the Philippine island of Palawan.

The disputed reef is within the area defined by international law as the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Beijing says the two buildings, constructed late in 1998, are shelters for fishermen.

But the three-storey structures are of a size and solidity which seems unusual for the fishing industry, and are protected by two Chinese military vessels, a transport ship and a survey craft.

Big satellite dishes positioned on the buildings appear to further belie the Chinese claim.

Many claims on the islands

In addition to China and the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all want a stake in the chain's future. The islands lie close to important shipping lanes and may possess important oil, gas and other mineral resources.

[ image: Six countries say they have a claim on the islands]
Six countries say they have a claim on the islands
China's Assistant Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, who is leading Beijing's delegation at the talks with Philippine officials, suggested that the two countries should refrain from taking any action which would escalate tension in the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The Philippine President, Joseph Estrada, said last weekend he had asked the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, if the UN could arrange talks to resolve the conflicting claims over the islands, and added that Mr Annan had promised to try to help solve the problem.

When asked whether China would accept a United Nations role in tackling the issue, he said he was confident the two countries would be able to resolve it on their own.

The Chinese, who currently occupy 10 Spratly islands, first established a presence in Mischief Reef in 1995.

Muslim protest

[ image: China's red flag is flying in Mischief Reef]
China's red flag is flying in Mischief Reef
About 30 demonstrators from the Task Force Mindanao-Free Bangsa Moro Coalition marched on the Heritage Hotel, where the talks are being held, in support of the Philippine position on the issue.

The Muslim activists carried placcards saying "China get out of Spratlys" and "Dismantle Chinese structures."

Four representatives from the group submitted a petition to a foreign affairs official attending the meeting.

The activists left peacefully after submitting their paper.

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