An aerial view of the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Manila last November with multi-billion dollar promises of new aid and investment, many thought bilateral relations were set to reach new heights.

Less than three months later, relations are under extraordinary new strain as tensions spiral in the South China Sea over Manila’s plans to refurbish long-neglected facilities on its claimed Thitu Island, the second largest naturally formed land feature in the contested maritime area.

According to The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a unit of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, “a handful of Chinese vessels” have swarmed Thitu Island since last July to block the Philippines’ repair operations. The number of Chinese ship has increased to around 100 in recent months, the ATMI report said.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has defended the repairs as “open and transparent” and important to “fulfilling the government’s desire to improve the living conditions of both the civilian and military citizens” based on the island.

He maintained in comments to Asia Times that the decision is a “legitimate undertaking and well within our rights as a sovereign nation” and in “full respect of international law and the rules-based order governing civilized states.”

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

In recent weeks, there has been a rising backlash in the Philippines against China’s establishment of a “rescue center” on the Philippine-claimed, China-occupied Fiery Cross Reef, which critics feel could have military applications.

Filipino strategists see China’s construction activities on nearby features as a prelude to the establishment and declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, a move that would be seen as a direct threat to the Philippines’ national security.

Top legislators and defense establishment officials have also vehemently opposed China’s prospective purchase of a financially distressed major shipping yard at Subic Bay, the former site of an American naval base that looks over the South China Sea.

Perturbed by China’s massive reclamation activities and deployment of advanced weapon systems to disputed islands in the area, the Philippines recently resumed its long-delayed repair operations on the Thitu Island.

Lorenzana told Asia Times that the repair activities are long overdue, the first conducted since the 1970s. Shortly after occupying the contested island, the Philippines built the first major airstrip in the area in 1978.

Five years later, Malaysia followed by building a similar facility on the Swallow Reef. Vietnam built a much smaller and more rudimentary version a few years earlier than the Philippines in the neighboring Spratly Island.

Over the succeeding decades, Taiwan and China built larger advanced facilities across the area. China has upped the ante by transforming low-tide elevations and atolls into gigantic islands, which now house state-of-the-art airstrips, surface-to-air missile systems, and harbors which can accommodate large vessels.

Despite being a pioneer in fortifying its claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines initial pro-activeness slipped into strategic neglect over the decades, in part due to a budgetary problems.

It was not until the Benigno Aquino administration (2010-2016) that the Philippines decided to build and repair its facilities across nine land features under its control in the South China Sea, particularly the eroded 1,300-meter airstrip on Thitu Island.

The unpaved airstrip at Thitu’s Rancudo Airfield serves both military and commercial air transportation needs. The Philippine Air Force regularly sends aircraft from the nearby large island of Palawan to Thitu to make reconnaissance missions in Philippine-controlled areas in the Spratly island chain.

In June 2014, the Philippine government announced plans to repair the airstrip with the assistance of US government aid. The US and China are now wrestling in the maritime area, with China taking frequent umbrage at US Navy freedom of navigation operations near China-claimed features.

But the repairs were postponed when Manila filed an arbitration case at an international tribunal at The Hague challenging China’s expansive claims in the area. Then, Manila felt that any repair work would undermine its “moral high ground” amid an ongoing legal complaint against China.

The tribunal ruled in July 2016 in Manila’s favor, but China has refused to abide by the ruling.

The Chinese-claimed Subi Reef as seen from the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island on April 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The airstrip and other facilities on Thitu island, which until recently hosted its own mayor and permanent residents, have drastically deteriorated in recent years. The degradation has undermined Manila’s ability to properly resupply its personnel and fortify its claim over the island.

Following President Rodrigo Duterte’s April 2017 command to Filipino troops to “occupy all these islands and put up the Philippine flag” in Philippine-claimed features in the South China Sea, senior defense officials visited Thitu Island to evaluate conditions and initiate strategic repairs.

“We try to be friends with everybody, but we have to maintain our jurisdiction [in the area],” Duterte told Filipino troops in mid-2017. “It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant.”

At the time, the leader instructed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to “erect structures there and raise the Philippine flag.” He has since vacillated between tough and soft rhetoric in relation to China’s build-up in the maritime area.

China has firmly opposed the moves, including a visit made by Lorenzana and former armed forces chief Eduardo Ano to Thitu in mid-2017.

“When [China’s ambassador] learned that we are going to repair our runway in [Thitu], he came to me and said, ’No,’” Lorenzana revealed for the first time during a conference last December. “[I]t’s just proper for us to improve the runway and every facility in the Pag-asa because [Chinese forces] have already developed Subi Reef,” he said

Navy personnel from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display on the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

In recent months, the Philippines has worked to build a beach ramp to facilitate the delivery of construction materials, including heavy equipment, gravel, sand, steel bars and concrete, for the repair and upgrade of Thitu’s facilities.

Bad weather has delayed the works in recent weeks, though the construction of the beach ramp is expected to be finished by the end of March, according to defense officials.

According to the AMTI report, China has sought to discourage and disrupt the repair activities through the deployment of para-military vessels from neighboring Subi Reef, currently under Chinese occupation, in the vicinity of Thitu.

From mid-December to late January, the number of Chinese vessels in the area reached “a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26,” according to AMTI. The presence of the military vessels, a senior defense official told Asia Times, has failed to intimidate the ongoing repair works.

“The presence of militia on the Chinese man-made structures is no surprise to us as they have been there since 2012,” Lorenzana said in a statement on February 8.

Separately, the defense chief told Asia Times that the Philippines remained “undaunted” by China’s militia boat maneuvers and that the Philippines would continue the upgrade efforts as planned.

While China’s intimidation tactics have so far failed to deter efforts by other claimant states to fortify their positions in the sea, the moves have underscored Beijing’s ability and willingness to encircle rivals and impede their tenuous supply lines in the area, alienating even supposed allies like the Philippines.

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