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Philippine leader stops 22 Manila Bay projects due to US concerns

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has ordered a halt to 22 major land reclamation projects in Manila Bay indefinitely for an environmental impact and legal compliance assessment, an official announced on Thursday.

Marcos’s directive follows the United States expressing concerns over the environmental consequences of these projects, particularly due to the involvement of a Chinese firm previously blacklisted by the US for its role in constructing militarized Chinese islands in the South China Sea. This move had escalated tensions in the contested region.

The heavily fortified US Embassy in Manila is located on the bay’s edge, known for its scenic sunsets but infamous for pollution.

“All these projects are now suspended,” stated Environment Secretary Antonia Yulo Loyzaga during a televised press briefing. “Each one is under review.”

A team comprising scientists specializing in oceanography, geology, and climate change will be assembled to assess both ongoing and planned reclamation projects, which were sanctioned by the previous administration, according to Loyzaga.

Environmental activists have protested against these initiatives, primarily led by real estate companies aiming to establish islands for high-end hotels, casinos, dining, and entertainment venues within the bay.

Stretching across 190 kilometers of coastline, the bay crosses the densely populated metropolitan Manila capital region and multiple provincial areas.

For decades, numerous slums, factories, businesses, and residential zones have directly released waste into the bay, prompting a 2008 Supreme Court mandate for government agencies to clean up the polluted waters for safe swimming.

Last week, the US Embassy conveyed its concerns to Philippine officials about potential long-term and irreversible environmental impacts, resilience to natural disasters, and trade disruption due to these reclamations.

The embassy also voiced apprehension over links to China Communications Construction Co., blacklisted for aiding the construction and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

China’s firms on the blacklist are prohibited from trading with US companies without a nearly unobtainable special license. China has denounced the US sanctions as illegal.

China Communications Construction Co., a state-owned entity, disclosed that one of its subsidiaries, China Harbour Engineering Company Ltd., is involved in a project to create three artificial islands in Manila Bay near suburban Pasay city.

In 2016, a Hague arbitration tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea invalidated China’s expansive historical claims in the South China Sea.

However, China rejected this ruling and continues to defy it, even though it didn’t participate in the arbitration.

While the US doesn’t claim any part of the South China Sea, it emphasizes freedom of navigation and peaceful dispute resolution in the strategically vital waterway, crucial for global trade.

Over the past decade, China has transformed at least seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases, alarming not only the US but also rival claimant states and escalating tensions in an area long considered a potential flashpoint in Asia.

Territorial disputes have become a sensitive aspect of the US-China rivalry. US naval vessels and aircraft have patrolled these disputed waters to challenge China’s expansive territorial assertions, often leading to Chinese warnings against meddling or facing unspecified consequences.

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