A satellite image of the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: Planet Labs

Reports of Chinese construction of a maritime rescue center on the Fiery Cross reef, a contested land feature in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea, are making political waves and widening fault lines in the Philippines.

Fiery Cross, part of the so-called “big three” along with Mischief and Subi reefs, is widely seen as the commander-and-control center and a key intelligence hub for Chinese naval activities in the southern portion of the hotly contested maritime region. China has reportedly spent over US$11 billion to build Fiery Cross into the largest island in the Spratlys.

According to the Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China first placed sensors and communications facilities on the contested land feature in 2017. Now, China seems to be forging ahead with building a myriad of dual-purpose civilian and military facilities on the reclaimed island.

Concerns are rising among rival claimants and others that China may soon use the burgeoning facilities in the area to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, a move that would restrict the aerial and maritime access to the sea region.

As early as 2015, China’s Foreign Ministry defended such construction activities as part of a broad effort to provide non-threatening public international goods in the contested area, including “shelters, aids for navigation, search and rescue as well as marine meteorological forecasting, fishery and other administrative services” for China’s and the region’s benefit.

Two years later, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Wu Qian went dismissed rising concerns over China’s reclamation activities in the area, asserting that “[t]here is no such thing as man-made islands,” and that “[m]ost of the building [on the reclaimed islands] is for civilian purposes, including necessary defensive facilities.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has mainly towed that rhetorical line. In a press conference in late January, Salvador Panelo, Dutetre’s spokesman, openly embraced China’s narrative of altruistic construction activities in the South China Sea.

He said the Philippines “should be thankful,” since the establishment of such facilities “could help seamen in distress in that area” and “can help everybody.” He maintained that the government “will do nothing” to deter China from building the rescue center.

That’s provided new fuel to the fire of critics of Duterte’s China-leaning policies. Last November, Duterte’s spokesman came under fire for openly dismissing the Philippines’ July 2016 landmark arbitration ruling at a tribunal at The Hague against China’s competing South China Sea claims as “useless”, since “there is no country or body on earth that can enforce it against China.”

Panelo’s statement, however, was openly criticized by other statesmen, who called for a tougher government response to China’s new construction activities in the disputed area.

On February 1, Senator Francis Pangilinan, leader of the main opposition Liberal Party, referred to the presidential spokesman as a “Chinese puppet” whose “every tone clearly manifests the language” of Beijing. He carped that Panelo’s controversial statements often make one “wonder sometimes which country he was speaking for.”

Duterte, who once quipped about the Philippines becoming a “Chinese province”, has also come under persistent criticism for soft-pedaling on the South China Sea disputes.

Collage image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (R). Image: Facebook

Congressman Gary Alejano, a former navy officer and leading opposition figure, has warned that the construction of the Fiery Cross distress center represents China’s “outright assertion of dominance.” “It could be used to facilitate intelligence gathering and for faster deployment of Chinese military forces in the area they are illegally claiming,” he added.

Even staunch Duterte allies such as Senator Richard Gordon have sounded alarm bells. During a Senate hearing in mid-January, he raised concerns about China’s rising ability to intercept radio communications between Philippine troops in the area and an encroaching threat to the Philippine mainland.

During the hearing, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana broadly concurred with those critiques of China’s expanding footprint in the South China Sea. “It’s very clear that they [Beijing] would like to have some hegemony or control over [the South China Sea]” the defense chief maintained.

“It’s very clear that the [China] is trying to extend its influence in the South China Sea, West Philippine Sea and the fact that they have built, reclaimed islands there, built islands out of shoals and reefs and turned them into practically a military base or naval base,” Lorenzana added.

The defense chief warned that Chinese troops could reach mainland Philippines form the Mischief Reef within approximately 20 minutes, underscoring the necessity for building up the Philippines’ defensive capabilities.

The Philippine Air Force, which only acquired modern fighter jets in recent years, is currently contemplating the purchase of Black Hawk helicopters from US contractor Lockheed Martin. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is currently in the midst of a multi-billion dollar modernization program, which started during the previous Benigno Aquino administration and has been extended under Duterte’s government.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo, Quezon city, Manila, February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

In December, Lorenzana said that the government will protest any Chinese action that imperils Philippine interests in the South China Sea. He also said that the Philippine Navy will continue its patrols and re-supply activities in the area despite Chinese opposition and harassment of Filipino surveillance missions in the area.

“We will still continue with our activities there. We will patrol regularly… [and] continue strengthening our islands. We have nine islands,” he added said. The defense chief has repeatedly reassured the Philippine public that the repair and upgrade of Philippine facilities in the Thitu Island, where it has permanent troops and residents, will be completed by this year.

But that hasn’t reassured the administration’s critics. Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, another prominent national figure, has urged the government to protest China’s latest actions in the Fiery Cross, which is also claimed by the Philippines as part of its so-called Kalayaan (freedom) Group of Islands.

Under growing public pressure, the Duterte administration has shifted its position. Spokesman Panelo has walked back his earlier statement, arguing that the establishment of any rescue center by China is acceptable only if it “has informed the [Philippine] government and sought [its] permission” first.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin, meanwhile, said on February 2 that the government “will protest if the reports [of distress center construction] turn out to be true” and that his department “has filed almost 20 protests against China’s actions in the [South China Sea] without fanfare” in response to recent unilateral activities in the area.

But whether Duterte’s government maintains a harder line vis-a-vis China in the South China Sea is yet to be seen.

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