Aerial photographs obtained by Inquirer.net from a source show that China is almost finished transforming seven reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago into island fortresses, in a bid to dominate the heavily disputed South China Sea.
Most of the photos, taken between June and December 2017, were snapped from an altitude of 1,500 meters and they showed the reefs that had been transformed into artificial islands in the final stages of development as air and naval bases.
Shown the photographs, Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., the former mayor of Kalayaan town on Pag-asa Island, the largest Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys and internationally known as Thitu Island, recognized new facilities on the man-made isles.
‘Photos are authentic’
Bito-onon saw the construction going on when he flew over the islands with foreign journalists nearly two years ago.
“These photos are authentic. I flew with HBO before the elections in 2016. We got repeated warnings from the Chinese because we were circling over the islands. I see there are now additional vertical features,” Bito-onon said.
With its construction unrestrained, China will soon have military bastions on Kagitingan Reef, known internationally as Fiery Cross Reef; Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs from which to project its power throughout the region.
Within Philippines’ EEZ
One of the reefs, Panganiban, lies within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has ruled that Panganiban Reef belongs to the Philippines.
In a report on China’s militarization of the South China Sea last December, US think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) said Kagitingan Reef had the most construction in 2017, with work spanning 110,000 square meters.
The runways for the three biggest reefs—Kagitingan, Panganiban and Zamora—appeared either completed or almost ready for use.
Lighthouses, radomes, communication facilities, hangars and multistory buildings had also been built on the artificial islands.
Amti, which described 2017 as a “constructive year for Chinese base building” in the South China Sea, noted the presence of underground tunnels, missile shelters, radars and high-frequency antennas on the artificial islands.
The photos obtained by Inquirer.net showed the consistent presence of cargo vessels believed to be used in transporting construction supplies to the artificial islands.
Three military ships capable of transporting troops and weapons were docked at Panganiban Reef in a picture taken last Dec. 30. These were two transport ships (Hull Nos. 830 and 831) and an amphibious transport dock (989).
The Luoyang (527), a Type 053H3 Jiangwei II class missile frigate, was spotted about a kilometer from Zamora Reef last Nov. 15. This type of war vessel has two quadruple launchers installed amidships. It also has a Type 79A dual-barrel 100 mm gun installed on the bow deck, capable of firing 15-kilogram shells at a rate of 18 rounds per minute over a range of 22 km.
Last June 16, the Luzhou (592), a Type 056 Jiangdao class missile frigate, was photographed at Panganiban Reef. China’s defense ministry reported the vessel took part in live-fire exercises in the South China Sea last December.
On the smaller reefs—Burgos, Calderon, McKennan and Mabini—the photos showed helipads, wind turbines, observation towers, radomes and communication towers had been built.
A photo taken last Nov. 28 showed a single-barrel 100 mm gun had been positioned on McKennan Reef.
Status quo deal ignored
The extent of development on the reefs show that China has gone ahead with building military outposts in the Spratlys despite a 2002 agreement with
the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) not to change any features in the sea.
At the same time, China has softened the impact of its military buildup with pledges of investments to the Philippines and talk of a framework for negotiating with Asean a code of conduct for the management of rival claims in the strategic waterway.
Besides the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also claim parts of the Spratly archipelago. Taiwan is a sixth claimant.
North Korea’s missile and atomic weapon tests also helped draw international attention away from China’s construction activities on the reefs, although recent pronouncements from Malacañang indicated the Philippines was not exactly unaware of the Chinese military buildup in the Spratlys.
Roque: No longer news
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told a news briefing early last month that China’s militarization in the South China Sea was no longer news but the Philippines would not protest as long as China kept its “good faith commitment” that it would not reclaim any more islands in the waterway.
“The fact that they are actually using it now as military bases, as far as I’m concerned, is not new. It’s not news because we’ve always been against militarization of the area. But the good faith commitment is not to reclaim new islands. I hope that’s very clear,” Roque said.
“[T]he point is, has there been a breach of Chinese commitment not to reclaim any new islands or shoal in the area? For as long as there is none, then we continue to respect that they are true to their commitment not to do so. But I think, from the very beginning, China, we knew, was militarizing the area by reclaiming these areas and by using them as military bases,” he added.
Don’t trust a thief
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a member of the legal team that argued the Philippine case against China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea in the Hague arbitral court, slammed Roque’s position, comparing it to trusting a thief.
“You don’t rely on the good faith of the thief [who’s trying to break] into your house. If you have that mindset, you rely on the good faith of someone who’s trying to break into your house, that means you’re out [of touch] with reality. You’re in a fantasyland. That’s not how the world is put together. That’s not realpolitik,” Carpio said.
The Philippines is battling communist rebels, terrorists loyal to the Islamic State jihadi group, and Abu Sayyaf bandits but the country is facing a much bigger security threat, Carpio said.
“The biggest [security] problem is China. If we lose [our maritime space in the West Philippine Sea], we lose it forever,” Carpio told the Inquirer in a recent interview, using the local name of the waters within the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea.
“And the area we will lose is huge, as big as the land area of the Philippines, about 300,000 square kilometers,” Carpio said.
China will never return the territory it grabs, he added. “We cannot go to the [International Court of Justice] because China has to agree and China will never agree to submit to arbitration.”
China has ignored the Hague tribunal’s July 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claim to the South China Sea and declared it violated Manila’s sovereign right to fish and explore for resources in its own EEZ.
But President Duterte, who came to power two weeks before the ruling came down, has refused to assert the Philippine victory, wooing China instead for loans and investments.
China has been only too glad to be neighborly to the Philippines but it has also been determined to finish its island fortresses in the South China Sea and present its rivals for territory in the waterway with a fait accompli when they sit down to negotiate the code of conduct.
Security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio questions Malacañang’s playing down China’s militarization of the South China Sea in exchange for economic assistance.
“We are talking [about] trillions of dollars [in] natural resources and we are compromising our territorial claims. At the end of the day, these are not Chinese grants but loans so you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the disadvantageous position the Philippines is putting itself into,” Custodio said.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the time when the Philippines should have protested China’s militarization had long passed. But the situation worsened when the country refused to bring up the arbitration ruling at the Asean Summit in Manila last year.
“That helped China in doing everything that needs to be completed. If ever the government one day realizes that those military aircraft are based there, definitely it has no one to blame but itself, because it did not act when the time to act was right,” Batongbacal said.
Asean’s silence on the arbitral ruling in favor of the Philippines during the Manila summit was a diplomatic score for China.
“Unity among the claimants is one of China’s biggest fears,” Batongbacal said.
“[The Chinese] see it as a huge threat when the surrounding countries are aligned. That’s what they don’t like the most because they think it’s containment. The fact that Asean didn’t come to unite about the disputes because we did not push through putting it on the table, all of that really favored China. They had a big win and that’s a huge relief for them,” he added.
Carpio said the Philippines could have generated support from the international community if it asserted its victory over China in the arbitration case.
“If we are not aggressive, if we are sitting on the ruling and we are not enforcing it, the others will not support us,” he said.
The military, for its part, cannot do anything but follow the government’s foreign policy.
“We still navigate in those waters. But we are instruments of national policy so we just follow whatever our national leaders and policymakers decide,” said a ranking military official who requested anonymity.
“Were there challenges [from China]? Yes, but we also challenged them, that’s part of the rules of the road. But the policies of the government are not only military, there’s also political, economic and diplomatic. You can’t confine it to the military,” the official said.
What’s at stake
If the Philippines does not assert its legal victory, it stands to lose 80 percent of its EEZ in the South China Sea, covering 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space, including the entire Recto Bank, or Reed Bank, and part of the Malampaya gas field off Palawan, as well as all of the fishery, oil and gas and mineral resources there, Carpio said.
“My estimate is 40 percent of water in the Philippines is in the West Philippine Sea, so that’s 40 percent of the fish that we can catch and we will lose that as a food source,” he said.
“Malampaya supplies 40 percent of the energy requirement of Luzon. If Malampaya runs out of gas in 10 years or less . . . we will have 10 to 12 hours of daily brownouts in Luzon. It will devastate the economy,” he added.