Philippine soldiers stationed at Thitu island. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe
Philippine soldiers stationed at Thitu island. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The Philippines has begun long-delayed repairs to its crumbling runway at Thitu, or Pag-asa, the largest of its nine outposts in the Spratly Islands, according to a May 25 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The tiny island is home to about 100 civilians and the Philippine military maintains a small garrison there as well. Pag-asa is located a mere 12 nautical miles from China’s new air and naval base at Subi Reef, and the maritime area was the site of a tense stand-off with a Chinese flotilla in August last year. Philippine defense officials in April last year said that they would upgrade the facility, but nothing was done until now.

The Philippine move comes at the same time as President Rodrigo Duterte said he would go to war if “anyone” crosses “some red lines,” which would include “getting natural resources” in “the Western Philippines Sea.” It was a clear signal to China, and Duterte’s statement was the strongest on the disputed islands and their surrounding waters since he became president in 2016. Since his election, the Philippines has toned down its rhetoric towards China and in April he even said he “loved” Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Before Duterte took over, the Philippines had brought a case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) including the legality of China’s “nine-dotted line” claim. On July 12, 2016, after Duterte had taken office, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in the Netherlands decided in favor of the Philippines. China, which had refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected the findings of the court.

Regional security analysts have suggested that Duterte, who has been accused of being too soft on China in exchange for loans and other monetary support, may have assumed a stronger stand because of pressure from the Philippine military. His statement comes after a renewed escalation of tensions in the area as China has landed nuclear strike-capable bombers on the islands it controls in the South China Sea.