Philippines plans hub in South China Sea as Chinese boats ‘increase’

A Chinese fishing vessel is anchored next to Filipino fishing boats at the disputed Scarborough Shoal, April 6, 2017.
PHOTO: Reuters

The Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr on Wednesday (May 12) said he was considering filing another diplomatic protest against China after it added more ships in a disputed area of the South China Sea, saying the vessels in the contested waters had “increased” to almost 300 from just over 200 in March.

He said he would take the issue up with his counterpart, adding a protest was “essential because you never let any incident pass”, he told Bloomberg TV on Wednesday.

Locsin’s comments came after armed forces chief General Cirilito Sobejana on Monday said the Philippines was on track to build facilities on Thitu island that would allow ships to refuel and resupply and sailors to rest, increasing the effectivity of the country’s maritime forces.

Sobejana told reporters the military was discussing funding for the “logistics hub” with the local government concerned.

The armed forces chief also said that marines and sailors had been deployed to nine stations in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea, and that CCTV cameras would be set up to monitor certain areas.

Responding to the news, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Tuesday said that China and the Philippines “enjoy a friendship spanning thousands of years whereas the South China Sea issue arose only several decades ago”.

“Our two countries have reached the consensus to properly and peacefully handle the issue through dialogue and negotiation,” Hua said, adding that Beijing hoped “certain individuals will refrain from stirring up trouble on this issue”.

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Located 480km west of the island of Palawan, Thitu is the second largest island in the Spratlys group.

China, the Philippines and Vietnam have the most number of claimed features while Malaysia and Brunei are also claimants.

Thitu, also known by Manila as Pag-asa Island, has been a Philippine town since 1971, occupied by a few hundred civilians and several dozen soldiers who vote in local elections.

Defence analyst Chester Cabalza said the construction of the facility “should have been routinely done since the establishment of the community in Pag-asa”.

“Manila missed accountable strategic opportunities that could have strengthened its guard over the Pag-asa Island, the first in all of the West Philippine Sea to (have) Filipino settlers,” said Cabalza, who is a fellow at both Beijing’s National Defence University and the US State Department.

Sobejana first revealed the Philippines might build structures on areas it claims on April 22.

He said the country had previously not constructed anything because of an agreement between Asean and China that the parties refrain from building on disputed areas.

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“However, China violated that,” he told reporters.

On Monday, the armed forces chief said that with the planned hub, Philippine ships patrolling to Pag-Asa would no longer have to return to Puerto Princesa city in Palawan.

Pag-asa already has an airfield and last year a private contractor finished a beaching ramp to speed up the unloading of cargo and construction equipment,

Earlier this month, Sobejano said in a radio interview that the government was also considering setting up recreational facilities for sailors on Thitu.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the building of a hub was “significant from an operational and strategic standpoint”.

The logistical support would allow the Philippines’ maritime forces to “sustain its presence more effectively in the disputed area”, he said.

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“In addition, having the logistics hub and stopover would help reduce reaction time required in times of contingencies,” Koh added.

The analyst said the hub would help “bolster Manila’s claim of sovereignty and rights in the Spratlys”, and predicted Beijing would react strongly to the project.

“We can expect the Chinese to resort to show of force in an attempt to intimidate the Philippines,” he said.

Beijing might mass vessels off the island, “or worse, attempt to blockade the passage of ships transiting from Palawan carrying materials and manpower for the construction work”.

“If we take the example of what happened in the recent past, Beijing will definitely make a verbal public statement, and put even more effort through backchannel diplomacy to try to dissuade Manila from proceeding with the plan,” Koh said.

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A high-ranking serving Philippine military official, who asked not to be named, said the idea for the hub did not come from the military but from the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, a multi-agency government group chaired by the National Security Adviser.

The official said that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources would be the lead agency in the project. “Our intent is to protect our fishermen by safety at sea and environment protection, which China violates,” he said.

Asked if President Rodrigo Duterte had approved the plan, the official said: “What I heard is that it’s a go.”

According to Koh, if Duterte had not yet authorised the plan, he would be under pressure to do so.

“Faced with multiple issues on the domestic front, the recent South China Sea tiff with Beijing comes as an unwelcome development that threatens to distract the administration from the more pressing challenge of keeping the pandemic under control and spurring economic recovery,” he said.

“Plausibly, the Philippine military is also constituting a source of pressure from within; it has very likely pressed for more resolute action against Beijing, short of resorting to use of force,” he added.

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Koh said the Duterte government was trying “to strike a balance between outright inaction and alienating the military, and outright action that could spiral the tension with Beijing out of control and imperil the prospect of Chinese investments, market access to Philippine exports, and notably of all, Covid-19 vaccines ”.

Talking to Bloomberg TV on Wednesday, Philippine foreign secretary Locsin said China’s economy was “essential for post-pandemic recovery for the entire globe, let’s face it”.

But the Duterte administration’s messaging on the South China Sea dispute seemed to be in disarray this week, with a rift between Locsin and presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.

When asked to comment on China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, Roque replied: “This is not OK, but what can we do?”

Locsin tweeted: “What can we do? Let’s try this: drop the subject and leave it entirely to the Department of Foreign Affairs under ME, the only expert on the subject bar none.”

[embed]https://twitter.com/teddyboylocsin/status/1392100320658935817?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1392100320658[/embed]

He added, “There is only one voice on what’s ours: mine. Period. Not even the military has any say. I speak for the President on this subject.”

Duterte has so far not said anything about Locsin’s claims.

Cabalza, the analyst, said that Chinese president Xi Jinping would remain wary of what Duterte has to say, noting that China would “watch every movement of Manila”.

“It will not compromise its takes in the contested islands, given its maritime regional ambition,” he added.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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