CHINA is making a bold move on the Spratly Islands. A fishing fleet — backed by navy frigates and coast guard vessels — has surrounded the Philippines island of Pagasa/Thitu.
The island is the largest land mass occupied by the Philippines in the island group. International observers say the close-in naval and fishing fleet presence around sandbars close to the island is a highly provocative move which is at odds with Beijing’s narrative that its land-grab in the South China Sea is over.
But Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte appears unwilling to stand up to Beijing.
“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” Duterte stated overnight.
He has dismissed claims by members of the judiciary and congress that its territory was being invaded.
“We were not invaded,” President Rodrigo Duterte said last night. “It’s not true. They are just there, but they are not claiming anything.”
But photographs released by Philippine Congressman Gary Alejano show the Chinese fleet clustered tightly around its most important possession in the disputed Spratly group. This has prompted Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio to describe the events as an “invasion of Philippine territory”.
He said the incident was “highly suspicious and threatening,” with China “(saying) one thing in public and (doing) another on the ground.”
Even if China was making such a move, Duterte said, “I will not call on America. I have lost trust in the Americans.”
LINES IN THE SAND
Pagasa/Thitu is home to about 100 Filipinos, and is within 22km of one of China’s controversial artificial island fortresses.
These artificial islands — submerged in their natural state at high tide — are not recognised as territorial land masses by international law. China, however, argues that their controversial artificial land reclamation projects and airfield fortresses now make them sovereign territory.
Duterte, who has previously said the Philippines has no way to stand against Beijing’s expansionist claims, says he has received assurances from the Chinese ambassador that they were not building anything there.
When asked why the fleet was so tightly clustered around an island claimed by the Philippines, Duterte replied: “To patrol … because they are our friends”.
But China’s actions in the Spratly Islands have been anything but friendly in recent years, with its fishing fleet and coastguard regularly preventing Philippines fishermen from entering the disputed region.
“One plausible (though hardly reassuring) interpretation of the Chinese activity, offered by AMTI, is that Beijing is engaging in a coercive demonstration around Thitu in order to dissuade the Philippine authorities from carrying out long-planned repairs and extensive infrastructure upgrades,” says Dr Euan Graham, Director, International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.
International observers are suspicious of the move involving the militia-like Chinese fishing fleet, which appears to have landed on an unoccupied sandbar named Sandy Cay some 4.6km east of Pagasa/Thitu.
The occupied island itself is some 22km from the artificial island fortress of Subi Reef — one of seven heavily militarised bases built by China in the area since 2013.
The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has posted satellite photographsconfirming the assembly of the Chinese fishing and naval fleet in the contested waters.
Nine Chinese fishing ships, three naval vessels and a coast guard ship have so far been counted, says Gregory Poling of AMTI.
Philippine patrol vessels have reportedly been instructed to stand down — despite the Chinese fleet having reportedly prevented a Philippine government vessel from approaching.
“A Philippine government ship from BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) was prevented by Chinese fishing vessels from going near our sandbars located generally west of Pagasa Island, around two to seven miles away,” Philippines congressman Gary Alejano told GMA news at the weekend, highlighting similarities to the way in which Beijing occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
“The Chinese may have a sinister plan to occupy sandbars just west of Pagasa that belong to us,” he said.
Pagasa/Thitu is home to about 10 Filipino fishermen and is the largest of the 10 islands in the Spratly group occupied by the Philippines and contains a runway. Plans to spend $US32 million in an upgrade of the island’s facilities were recently announced.
PICKING A FIGHT
Seizing Sandy Cay would be one of Beijing’s most provocative acts since its 2012 occupation of Scarborough Shoal. The sandbar featured in last year’s International Court of Arbitration ruling, which found against China’s claims to the entire South China Sea. Its proximity within 12 nautical miles (22km) of the occupied Subi Reef was highlighted as a potential counter to Beijing’s territorial claims.
China has ignored the ruling.
But it does appear to have taken note of Sandy Cay’s significance, writes Dr Euan Graham of the Lowy Institute.
“China’s ongoing maritime activity around Thitu is worrisome in its own right because it is coercive in nature. However, if the objective of the operation is to occupy Sandy Cay, that would mean a significant escalation in tension in the South China Sea.”
Beijing, however, has so far remained unusually silent about its activities in the Spratly Islands.
The appearance of the Chinese fishing fleet, navy and coast guard in the Spratlys comes shortly after the Philippines and the other nine nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) concluded a draft framework on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
“Asia has acquired yet another flashpoint it could well do without,” Dr Graham writes. “Moreover, it appears to be one that China has deliberately picked at a time and location of its choosing.”