A protester holds a placard during a demonstration in Manila against China's presence in disputed waters in the South China Sea. The Philippines is one of several countries opposed to Chinese expansion in the vital seaway. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill Filipinos because of a sandbar?” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when asked about reports suggesting China has sought to occupy a land feature (Sandy Cay) close to the Philippine-occupied island of Thitu in the South China Sea.

The Filipino president again brushed aside the necessity for and wisdom of confronting Beijing on the issue, insisting that China is, “just there but they are not claiming anything,” and that the Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua, “assured me that they will not build anything there.”

Prominent political figures, however, have rung alarm bells over what they see as a creeping Chinese ‘invasion’ of Philippine-claimed territories in the contested South China Sea.

Security analysts see China’s build-up on the nearby contested Scarborough Shoal as the third vertex of a triangle of emerging Chinese military bases that aims to establish control of the strategic waterway.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a key architect of the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award against China last year at The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, has described China’s latest move as nothing short of an “invasion of Philippine territory.”

The influential magistrate called upon the government to “vigorously protest this invasion of Philippine territory by China” and invoke the country’s mutual defense treaty with America if necessary.

Duterte has blown hot and cold on strategic ties with the US, witnessed in the downgrading of recent joint military exercises known historically to concern China.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano at the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Manila on August 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Carpio has recently been joined by the defense establishment, led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, which has often been perturbed by the Duterte administration’s perceived soft-pedaling on China’s maritime assertiveness within Philippine-claimed waters.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) recently leaked information on suspicious movement of Chinese vessels close to Philippine-controlled features, including Thitu, to former soldier and congressman Gary Alejano.

Alejano, who shared the leaked information with the public, said more than a dozen Chinese vessels amassed close to Thitu from August 11 to 15 and cautioned Duterte again “denial or silence or inaction” on the issue. Satellite imagery released by the Washington DC-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative corroborated the report.

Not only have Chinese vessels sought to occupy the Sandy Cay, but they also planted a Chinese flag on a sandbar in the vicinity of the Philippine-controlled Kota Island, the reports said.

After Philippine officials announced on August 16 that China had agreed to not occupy any new features in the South China Sea or build on Scarborough Shoal, there is a palpable sense of betrayal and fears of encirclement among some Filipino officials.

A view of Philippine occupied Thitu Island in disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

For many, Duterte’s conciliatory approach towards China has emboldened the Asian powerhouse to push the envelope in contested waters. The growing presence of Chinese vessels may also explain delays in the planned upgrade of facilities on Thitu, the second largest naturally formed land feature in the contested Spratly chain of islands.

Thitu, known as Pag-asa in the Philippines, hosts a Filipino mayor and large community of residents but is comparatively less developed and militarized than China’s nearby controlled features. In April, Lorenzana and AFP chief of staff Eduardo Año visited Thitu and announced plans for revamping its aging airstrip and rudimentary civilian infrastructure.

Both the president and his key cabinet members have strenuously downplayed the reports, claiming there has neither been an ‘invasion’ of Philippine territory, nor that a Chinese flag has been planted on sandbars close to Philippine-occupied land features in the area.

Much is at strategic stake for the Philippines. The Sandy Cay, located just a few nautical miles off the coastline of Thitu, is a “rock” which is entitled to its own 12 nautical miles of sovereign territorial sea.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol near a sign in the Spratly Islands. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

If China were to fully occupy the land feature, it would cut off Thitu’s territorial sea by a third. And if China decides to artificially expand it, similar to what it has done at Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, then it could directly threaten the Philippines’ presence on Thitu as well as nine other land features in the Spratlys, defense sources say.

China currently occupies and has artificially expanded the nearby Subi Reef, which is a low-tide-elevation that is not entitled to any maritime jurisdiction under international law.

“Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized (to put it mildly), or being invaded (to put it frankly), by China,” warned the Filipino magistrate, who has emerged as one of Duterte’s most prominent critics on South China Sea sovereign issues.

“If China acquires sovereignty over Sandy Cay, it can now claim Subi Reef as part of the territorial sea of Sandy Cay, legitimizing China’s claim over Subi Reef.”

A general view of Chinese-claimed Subi Reef, as seen from Philippine-claimed island of Thitu on April 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

In a brazen break with protocol, the Philippine military has also openly called on Duterte’s elected government to take a tougher stance on the issue.

AFP spokesman General Restituto Padilla recently openly enjoined the Department of Foreign Affairs to raise the issue in the newly established Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM), which serves as a diplomatic venue for discussing sensitive bilateral concerns.

The military assured the public that it “will file our ongoing and continuing protest for any of [China’s provocative] movements”, and “file diplomatic protest whenever we have sightings close to our areas, especially this one [Thitu Island].”

Philippine leaders are thus once again deeply divided on China and how to manage South China Sea issues, with no clear resolution in sight and China undaunted in expanding its nearby claims and presence in the contested sea.

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