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A Philippine military source believes that the indigenous fighter jets that China unveiled recently will be tested in disputed areas in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), a move that is likely to be followed soon after by imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).
Military sources say at the rate it is going, China’s reclamation will be completed within the year. And the rush is supposed to be dictated by a timeline of possible decision on an arbitration case filed by the Philippines that will determine maritime entitlements of reefs occupied by China in the disputed area.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) expects a resolution from the arbitral tribunal next year.
The military sources point to implementation of ADIZ in the area as the end goal of China to exercise effective control and jurisdiction in the disputed area.
“By then, whatever the decision of the [tribunal], China shall already have demonstrated effective occupation with their permanent military presence there. What to do then with the decision declaring those features as rocks having only 12 nautical miles (NM) of territorial sea when what you have standing on them are fortified air and naval bases?” one source said.
In the arbitration case pending before the international tribunal, the Philippines asked the court to declare that certain features such as rocks do not generate maritime entitlements beyond 12 NM. This would cover Johnson (Mabini) Reef, which the Philippines described as a rocky protuberance at high tide; Cuarteron (Calderon), which is composed of coral rocks reaching higher than 1.5 meters at high tide; and Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan), a submerged protruding rock not higher than one meter at high tide.
But the latest surveillance military photos will show the expanse at which those supposed rocks have grown, since the massive reclamation was discovered last year. Johnson or Mabini Reef has now a total land area of 7.94 hectares or 79,464 square meters (sqm). The 1.5-meter high coral rock Cuarteron is now 11.97 hectares or 119,712 sqm.
And Fiery Cross, which was originally a submerged bank and no more than one meter tall at high tide, now has a three-kilometer airstrip with a naval harbor for patrol ships.
Gaven Reef as of February 2013 only occupied 1,032 sqm but as of January 30 this year had a reclaimed land area of 78,867 sqm. And being constructed there is a six story-building complex that seemed to the military as a future administrative office with a floor area of 4,128 sqm.
The Philippine is among six claimants to the oil-rich Spratlys chain of islands in the South China Sea. It occupies nine islands called the Kalayaan Island Group. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea. Other claimants are Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam.
In 2013, the Philippines submitted for compulsory arbitration a case to declare among others the nullity of China’s nine-dash line claim over the whole of South China Sea. It is seeking relief from the arbitral tribunal to declare that the submerged features within and beyond 200 NM of the Philippines are not part of China’s continental shelf. Therefore, Manila said, China’s occupation of those features violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Admittedly, the DFA said, the decision of the arbitral tribunal is toothless, a moral suasion and international pressure at best, even if the Philippines wins the case against China. Even a regional Code of Conduct being forged by Asean and China will then also have to contend with the reality on the ground–how to deal with China’s immovable presence there.
Asean groups Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
After China shall have garrisoned the disputed areas in the South China Sea, former Philippine Air Force officer and now Magdalo party-list Rep. Francisco Acedillo said the arbitration decision and whatever it is worth legally will be irrelevant.
“How poorly we have prepared for an eventuality of a challenge to the occupation of our islands,” Acedillo noted.
VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”