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If China builds in Scarborough Shoal, it would come ‘after G20 summit’

China will not carry out any reclamation work in the Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea before hosting the G20 summit next month, but it might begin construction before the US presidential election in November, a source familiar with the matter said.

Beijing would also avoid taking any provocative action in the shoal right now given the Philippines had expressed a willingness to explore new ways to resolve their dispute, he said.

Special Philippine envoy Fidel Ramos wrapped up his ice-breaking trip in Hong Kong on Friday, after meeting representatives of China. Ramos, acting on behalf of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, said Manila wanted formal discussions to avoid further tensions over the South China Sea, where several nations have competing claims.

Philippines wants formal talks to ease tensions with China, says ex-president Ramos

“Since the G20 will be held in Hangzhou next month, and regional peace will be the main topic among leaders of the great powers, China will refrain from [acting on the] reclamation plan,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

But Beijing might seize an opportunity to reclaim land at the atoll in the Spratly Islands before the Americans vote for a new president on November 8, he said.

The atoll, about 230km west of Manila, is claimed by Beijing, Manila and Taipei. Chinese coastguard ships took control of the area in 2012 after a tense stand-off with Philippine vessels.

“US President Barack Obama will focus on domestic issues ahead of the election as he needs to pass down legacies before leaving office. That might make him busy and he might not have time to take care of regional security issues,” he said.

China has sent more than a dozen security vessels near the shoal in recent weeks, compared with the usual two or three, news site Washington Free Beacon reported, citing US defence officials.

China appears to be sending a flotilla of hundreds of fishing vessels to the shoal in an action similar to what is happening in the East China Sea, according to the Beacon.

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Japanese coastguard officials said they had spotted seven Chinese government vessels and more than 200 fishing vessels operating around the waters of the Diaoyus by Wednesday. The islands are controlled by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus.

China’s seasonal moratorium on fishing ended this month, and the nation needed to send warships to the shoal to protect its fishermen, according to Beijing-based military expert Song Zhongping. The security situation in the waters was not safe for Chinese fishing boats after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected Beijing’s historical claims to the area on July 12, Song said.

“Many Philippine fishermen swarmed into the atoll after the unfair ruling, increasing security uncertainties in the waters, which is why the Chinese military has to increase patrols,” Song said.

Ramos told a press conference in Hong Kong he discussed the issue of fishing rights in the South China Sea with Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress.

Ex-interior secretary Rafael Alunan said talks with the Chinese side included the possibility of setting up a “two-track” system that would allow them to cooperate in some areas while separately handling “contentious issues”.

Last week, PLA Air Force spokesman Shen Jinke confirmed Beijing had sent H-6K bombers and Su-30 fighter jets to conduct patrols in the region, including the Scarborough Shoal.

The shoal is “one of Beijing’s key strategic positions in the South China Sea … China will definitely build up maritime security forces on it if other countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, start construction projects in the region,” Song said.

Professor Wang Hanling, a maritime expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the Beacon’s report was aimed at sowing discord between Beijing and Manila, and blamed Washington and Tokyo.

“The US and Japan are unhappy to see Ramos’ meeting with senior Chinese diplomat Fu Ying in Hong Kong, worrying Manila is walking too close to Beijing,” Wang said.

The source said it was “ a must for China” to build an outpost in the shoal, which would extend the reach of the air force in the region by at least 1,000km and close a gap in coverage off Luzon, the gateway to the Pacific.

The source added that China should build an airstrip on the shoal and establish an early warning system on Macclesfield Bank, just east of the Paracels. Doing so would allow China “to keep an eye” on the US naval base at Guam.

The Pentagon said last month that it would replace B-52 bombers at the base with the more advanced B-1 bombers, with the deployment slated for last Saturday.

China can already land aircraft at Woody Island, and three additional airstrips are believed to have been built at Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi reefs in the Spratlys.

Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.

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