A Filipino soldier on Thitu island in the South China Sea, October 29, 2020. Image: AFP

MANILA – The Philippines is set to convert its underdeveloped Thitu Island into a major military logistics hub in the South China Sea, a plan that could give the United States a new beachhead in the contested maritime area and will likely intensify already hot tensions with China.   

Thitu’s hub plan will see the installation of high-resolution cameras to monitor activities of rival claimant states, namely China, and establish new facilities to support troops and naval patrols around the strategic island, the second largest in the contested Spratly Islands.

Thitu Island is already at the heart of China and the Philippines’ sea tussle. In recent years, Chinese vessels have swarmed Thitu in a bid to block Philippine shipments. Those have included materials earmarked to build a now completed beaching ramp that will be used to handle materials to upgrade Thitu’s civilian-military Rancudo Airfield airstrip.  

Thitu is currently home to a naval jetty, communication tower, soldiers’ barracks, a desalination facility and even an elementary school to serve both military members and somewhere between 200-300 resident civilians. In August 2020, Manila underscored its contested claim by naming six sandbars and two reefs in Thitu’s proximal area.  

The island’s strategic location jutting deep inside the South China Sea is no doubt being eyed by the US, which maintains a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. The separate Visiting Forces Act (VFA), now under renegotiation, allows the US to position troops and equipment on Philippine soil on a rotational basis.  

Any US plans for deploying advanced military hardware or conducting joint military activities on or around the island will likely have to wait until the departure of Beijing-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte, whose single six-year term will expire in mid-2022.

Duterte has sought to downgrade the strategic relationship in a nod to China, but the US and Philippines still conduct hundreds of trainings and exercises every year, including simulations of both conducting and repelling island invasions.  

While Duterte has soft-pedaled in the South China Sea, the Philippine defense establishment is clearly intent on laying the foundations for a more robust military presence as rival claimant states scramble to fortify their positions.

A fortified Thitu would go some way in rebalancing the Philippines’ considerable naval deficit vis-à-vis both China and its neighbors.  

An aerial view of the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea April 21, 2017. Photo: Agencies

China’s recent massive land reclamation and militarization of the features it controls in the sea has been well-documented and widely reported. But Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have also been fortifying their military facilities in the maritime area, in bids to assert their sovereign claims and exploit the sea’s precious resources and fisheries.

The South China Sea disputes are neither new nor likely to be settled anytime soon. Historically, rival superpowers and littoral states have tried to assert their claims through various means, ranging from the occupation of previously ‘empty land’ (terra nullius), conquest, prescription (gradual recognition of one claimant’s occupation by its rivals), and accretion (expansion of existing disputed territory through land reclamation).

Throughout the colonial period, the French, British, Americans, and Japanese powers fought over highly strategic clusters of islands, from the Pratas (in the northeast) and Paracels (in the north) to the Scarborough Shoal in the east and Spratlys in the center of the South China Sea basin.

The Cold War era, meanwhile, saw littoral claimant states relying on superpower support from the US (the Philippines and South Vietnam) and the Soviet Union (North Vietnam) to assert and maintain their presence and claim over disputed land features in the sea. China, ravaged by domestic crises and economic backwardness, was largely a dormant claimant until the 1980s.

Equipped with state-of-the-art US weapons and hosting large American military bases, the Philippines was among the most proactive claimant states throughout the Cold War period. The Philippines was perhaps also the first country to truly realize the value of establishing a literally concrete presence on the sea’s land features.

The former strongman Ferdinand Marcos oversaw the establishment of a then-modern airstrip and military facilities on Thitu Island in the late-1970s, the first of its kind in the entire South China Sea. Soon after, Vietnam, China and other claimant states started to follow suit.

The departure of American bases from the Philippines in the early-1990s, coupled with decades of strategic neglect by succeeding post-Marcos administrations, gradually weakened Manila’s position in the area as its naval capacity atrophied.

The Philippines subsequently lost Mischief Reef (1995) and Scarborough Shoal (2012) to China, which has rapidly expanded its military and para-military footprint in adjacent waters. In late September 2012, Beijing upped the ante by announcing the establishment of Sansha city, a new administrative prefecture in the disputed Paracels islands.

A year later, the Asian powerhouse pressed ahead with massive reclamation activities, including over disputed land features in the Spratlys, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines.

In less than two years, China reclaimed 1,170 hectares (2,900 acres) of land in the South China Sea, transforming sandbars and atolls into gigantic islands that now host a sprawling network of military bases and 10,000-foot-long runways.

Other claimant states have responded in kind. Taiwan upgraded its civilian and military facilities on Itu Aba, the biggest island in the Spratlys, while Malaysia, which has state-of-the-art facilities on the Swallow Reef, has pushed ahead with unilateral exploration of hydrocarbon resources in the disputed areas.

Vietnam has undertaken the most ambitious pushback against China, seen in the deployment of anti-air and artillery rocket systems in the sea and reclamation of disputed Spratly land features, most especially the West Reef and Sin Cowe Island – albeit on a limited scale compared to China’s activities and build up.

Eager to maintain what Manila then saw as the “moral high ground” during its historic South China Sea arbitration case against China at The Hague, the Benigno Aquino administration shunned even modest maintenance activities on Thitu and other claimed land features in the sea. Manila won the landmark case. In July 2016, the tribunal ruled against the legality of China’s nine-dash line claim to much of the sea.

China famously rejected the tribunal’s decision, which lacked an enforcement mechanism. The Duterte administration has not sought to push the decision, which effectively ruled in favor of Manila’s claim over Scarborough Shoal, in a bid to maintain friendly ties with Beijing.

But the defense establishment has since 2017 made moves to fortify the Philippines’ position. Above Beijing’s objections, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has made multiple visits to Thitu island to oversee the rehabilitation, expansion and upgrade of civilian and military facilities in the area, including runway repairs and construction of a beaching ramp designed to accommodate larger vessels.

Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters on Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands, April 21, 2017. Photo: Agencies

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has yielded to the armed forces on Thitu, saying in a statement “We defer to the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces on how best to fulfill their constitutional mandates with respect to improving the safety, welfare, livelihood, and personal security of Filipinos in the [Spratlys].”

China’s mass deployment of militia vessels to Manila-occupied islands in the Spratlys, including Thitu, has arguably strengthened the hand of the Philippine defense establishment, which has consistently pushed for a tougher stance in the South China Sea.

“We are calling on our legislators to increase the modernization fund [for the military] so we can buy more ships,” Philippine military chief General Sobejana told legislators last month amid the latest standoff with China over Whitsun reef, where Beijing has similarly deployed an armada of vessels.

Crucially at the same time, the Philippines is now in the middle of high-stakes negotiations with the US to fully restore the VFA, which governs the large-scale entry of American troops and bilateral military exercises.

In a surprise move, Duterte announced last year that he would unilaterally abrogate the agreement, nominally over US criticism of his government’s rights record. More recently, the populist leader has called on the US to pay more to renew the agreement.

But with an eye towards Duterte’s exit in 2022, the two allies are expected to explore new guidelines under their mutual defense treaty as well as derivative deals under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that could allow the US to support Manila’s fortification efforts in the Spratlys including on Thitu.

Philippine marines take position next to US marines Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) during an amphibious landing exercise at the beach of the Philippine navy training center facing the South China Sea in San Antonio town, Zambales province, north of Manila, October 6, 2018. Photo: Ted Aljibe/AFP

A better-fortified Thitu could in time provide support to US as well as its allies’ rising freedom of navigation operations launched to challenge China in the sea. Others suggest the US could eventually seek to transfer advanced missile systems to be installed on the island in a bid to counter China’s recent militarization of the features it controls nearby.   

“We came up with the proposal to turn [Thitu] into a logistics hub so our ships, instead of going back [480 kilometers] to Puerto Princesa [in nearby Palawan island] to refuel, will get their supplies there,” the Philippine military chief said.

“By transforming [Thitu] ­Island into a logistics hub, there would not be interruption in our sovereignty patrols in the West Philippine Sea,” he added, referring to the local name of the South China Sea.