THE PHILIPPINES cannot do anything but watch as China continues its military buildup and activities in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) despite the favorable verdict it got from an international arbitral tribunal.
China appears to have been militarizing the Spratly Islands with its construction of reinforced aircraft hangars on some reefs, satellite photographs released by Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) showed.
Taken in the past two months, the images showed hangars constructed on Fiery Cross, Subi and Panganiban (Mischief) reefs that are large enough to house any fighter jet used by the Chinese air force, CSIS reported.
While aircraft have not been spotted at the sites yet, the report noted that “the rapid construction of reinforced hangars at all three features indicates that this is likely to change.”
“Each of the three islets will soon have hangar space for 24 fighter-jets plus 3-4 larger planes,” the think tank said.
Lauro Baja, former Foreign undersecretary for policy and Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations, said new construction activities by the Chinese were not surprising.
“They have been occupying these areas before,” he told The Manila Times in a telephone interview.
Manila cannot easily evict or tame the Asian giant in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, he added.
“Unless we use force to evict them, you cannot tame the Chinese activities. No words can tame them. It can take some forceful action which I don’t think anybody will decide to do and that’s why China is very confident in engaging these activities,” Baja said.
China has rejected the July 12 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which nullified its historical claims to the resource-rich Spratlys.
The divided Association of Southeast Asian Nations was weak in urging China to abide by the ruling, while the United States’ naval exercises in the West Philippine Sea never bothered Beijing.
Baja said not even former president Fidel Ramos, who was sent as special envoy to China, will solve the issue immediately.
“That’s nothing,” the former ambassador said. “FVR himself said he is not there to negotiate yet. He is just there for what I can a call a confidence-building measure,” he noted.
Richard Heydarian, professor at De La Salle University’s political science department, said China was expected to dig in further to project strength after its humiliating defeat at the tribunal.
“So expect more robust military facilities construction in the Spratlys and occasional aerial and naval patrols by Chinese armed forces,” he told The Manila Times.
Former Philippine ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr. said China should abide by international law if it really wants to project power.
“The resolution of the dispute is not going to happen overnight. It will take some time. But if China wants to be a major power and respected by the international community, it should uphold the rule of law by abiding to the international law,” he said.
In the meantime, Heydarian urged the government to ask China for “quiet informal compliance,” like allowing Filipino fishermen access to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and stopping the harassment of Filipino troops in Pagasa (Thitu) island and other areas in the Spratlys.