China will begin preparatory work this year for an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, an official said, as two U.S. senators introduced a bill to impose sanctions on its activities in the disputed waterway.
Last month, a Philippine minister said Chinese President Xi Jinping had promised his Philippine counterpart China would not build structures on the rocky outcrop both countries claim, but China called the comments “baffling and regrettable”.
China seized the shoal, which is northeast of the Spratly islands, in 2012 and denied access to Philippine fishermen. But after President Rodrigo Duterte visited China last year, it allowed them to return to the traditional fishing area.
This week, Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, said China planned to begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal.
Sansha City is the name China has given to an administrative base for the South China Sea islands and reefs it controls.
The monitoring stations, along with docks and other infrastructure, form part of island restoration and erosion prevention efforts planned for 2017, Xiao told the official Hainan Daily in an interview.
A spokesman for the Philippine foreign ministry, Charles Jose, declined to comment, saying it was trying to verify the reports.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Beijing on Saturday for a two-day visit, where the South China Sea, almost all of which is claimed by China, is likely to figure.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the waters, which have rich fishing grounds, along with oil and gas deposits. About $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the waterway each year.
The United States has criticized China’s construction of man made islands and its build-up of military facilities there, expressing concern they could be used to restrict free movement.