China puts up 'rescue center' in West Philippine Sea

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Fiery Cross Reef (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 30) — China has established a "maritime rescue center" in the West Philippine Sea, state-run media said Tuesday.

Quoting China's Ministry of Transport, Chinese news outfit Xinhua reported that the rescue center was opened Tuesday in Fiery Cross Reef or Kagitingan Reef, one of the Beijing-occupied artificial islands in the Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea.

"The center will offer better support to maritime rescue operations in the southern part of the South China Sea," Xinhua said, quoting the Chinese government.

China on January 1 also launched ecological protection facilities to restore coral reefs in Fiery Cross Reef, as well as Mischief (Panganiban) and Subi (Zamora) reefs. The Chinese ministry also placed marine observation stations on the reefs, which offer regular information services such as marine forecasts and disaster warnings to passing ships.

READ: China to restore Spratlys' reefs destroyed due to island-building

Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, then said China's move only legitimizes the establishment of its military bases in the area.

"It is trying to mask its militarization of the area by higlighting possible civilian benefits/public goods provided by their artificial islands," Batongbacal told CNN Philippines.

Beijing has built structures on Fiery Cross Reef since it occupied the feature in 1988. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China violated its obligations under international law to protect and preserve the marine environment by its massive reclamation work and other island-building activities in Fiery Cross Reef and other contested areas in the Spratly group of islands.

The landmark decision also recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in areas being contested by China within Manila's 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, or the West Philippine Sea. China rejects the arbitral ruling and stands by its sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea.