WASHINGTON, D.C.: Three of Beijing’s outposts on contested West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) reefs are close to being ready for the deployment of military assets including mobile missile launchers, a US think tank reported Thursday.
Malacañang on Friday reiterated President Rodrigo Duterte’s “non-combative” position on territorial disputes between the Philippines and China, in reaction to the report of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“We need to reiterate the fact that the President has said his approach to the situation, to regional socio-geopolitics, has always been to come into a mutual understanding…and dialogue in order to resolve cases like these,” Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters in Davao City.
Analyzing satellite photographs, the think tank said the Beijing-occupied Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef base in the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands now has 12 hardened shelters, four more than seen in February, with retractable roofs that can house missile launchers.
At Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reef bases, China has expanded its communications and radar arrays with multiple radar towers on each.
And new construction of “very large underground structures,” four at each reef, is underway, which AMTI said was likely designed to house munitions and other essential goods.
“Major construction of military and dual-use infrastructure on the ‘Big 3’ (reefs) … is wrapping up, with the naval, air, radar and defensive facilities that AMTI has tracked for nearly two years largely complete,” the group said.
“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers to the Spratly Islands at any time.”
AMTI said the air bases on the three islands, and a fourth on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands, allow Chinese military aircraft to operate over almost the entirety of the South China Sea.
In December AMTI reported that large anti-aircraft guns and other defense systems had been installed on the islands.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea despite partial counter-claims from Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
But the United States has warned it against militarizing the region or threatening international sea lanes.
“We oppose China’s artificial island construction and their militarization that features in international waters,”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in Sydney in early June.
The AMTI report came just as ties between the Philippines and China have warmed up, as well as Beijing’s P15-million aid for relief and rehabilitation efforts in conflict-stricken Marawi City and a separate P5-million assistance to families of Filipino troops slain and wounded in the offensive.
Also this week, Beijing turned over P370 million worth of arms to Manila to fight terrorism, and promised to give even more.
Duterte has maintained a soft-landing approach on the territorial dispute with China even after the Philippines won in July 2016 an international arbitration case that sought to invalidate Beijing’s claim on South China Sea.