THE PHILIPPINES on Wednesday released photos of Chinese boats near Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), which it claimed would lead to new island-building by China in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The surveillance photos, taken by the Philippine Air Force last Saturday, were released by the Department of National Defense (DND) as leaders of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (Asean) gathered in Vientiane, Laos to discuss the maritime row, among other regional issues.
“We believe that this is a precursor to possible building of structures on the shoal, which is why we are gravely concerned about this development especially given that the shoal is well within our exclusive economic zone,” said Arsenio Andolong, DND public affairs director.
“And we would like to point out that the ambassador of China denied this only a week ago. If you notice, the photos were taken on September 3 so that makes it even more disturbing,” he added.
In Vientiane, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said “backchannel talks” were underway to clarify the presence of Chinese ships near Panatag Shoal.
The photos, some of which were published by The Manila Times on Tuesday, showed Chinese ships in the Panatag Shoal area that the DND said were capable of dredging sand and other activities required to build an artificial island.
Andolong said the DND had received information about the presence of several Chinese vessels near the shoal, also called Bajo de Masinloc, which were confirmed by continuous patrol and monitoring.
When the number of ships increased, Philippine officials broke their silence and bared China’s activities in the disputed area, he said.
China took control of Panatag Shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy, and has since deployed large fishing fleets while blocking Filipino fishermen.
US downplays photos
An aide to US President Barack Obama on Wednesday played down the significance of the Philippine photos, telling reporters in Vientiane the United States had not detected any unusual activity at Panatag Shoal.
When pressed on initial Philippine accusations on Monday before the photos were released, China insisted there were no dredging boats or others to prepare for island-building.
A DND source who asked not to be named expressed disgust over the presence of Chinese vessels at Panatag, saying: “I think it’s an indication that they are resorting to subterfuge to further their aims. We could analyze here that there is a possibility that they will start construction and reclamation. But we did not have much to go on with except the photos.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Sunday said the Air Force planes found four Chinese Coast Guard ships, one of which guarded the entrance to the shoal, and six other ships colored blue in different hues.
Four of them looked like barges and two appeared like troop ships, Lorenzana said.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday questioned China’s buildup and warned Beijing its actions could disrupt trade and become a potential military “flashpoint.”
In July, Manila won an international arbitration case against Beijing at The Hague, with the Permanent Court of
Arbitration ruling that China’s historical claims over most of South China Sea, including areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone such as Panatag Shoal, had no basis.
The tribunal upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to areas within the 200-nautical-mile zone as provided by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
Beijing boycotted the arbitration proceedings and refuses to heed the ruling, despite being a signatory to the Unclos.
An artificial island at Panatag Shoal could be a game-changer in China’s quest to control the sea and raises the risk of armed confrontation with the United States, according to security analysts.
Beijing this week insisted it had not started building at the shoal—a move that could lead to a military outpost just 230 kilometers or 140 miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon, where US forces are stationed.
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
The competing territorial claims have long been a major source of tension in the region, with China using deadly force twice to seize control of islands from Vietnam.
Tensions have escalated sharply in recent years as China has built islands on reefs and islets in the Kalayaan or Spratlys archipelago—another strategically important location—that are capable of supporting military operations.
The United States has reacted to that build-up by sailing warships close to the new islands, and sending warplanes over them.
This has deeply angered China, which has accused the Americans of “militarizing the region,” and raised concerns of armed conflict between the two world powers.
Air identification zone
Expanding presence with a military outpost at Panatag Shoal is vital to achieving China’s ambitions of controlling the sea, according to security analysts.
US officials fear a Chinese military airfield at the shoal would enable China to enforce a threatened air defense identification zone in the sea.
Another major concern is it allows China a military base close to where US forces regularly operate in Luzon.
US President Barack Obama reportedly directly warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during a meeting in March not to push ahead with any artificial island building there.
The United States, which is a treaty ally of the Philippines, has repeatedly said it does not want to fight a war over the shoal.
But military confrontation cannot be ruled out if China does start to build an island, according to security analysts.
“We could witness a physical confrontation between Chinese Coast Guard and Filipino vessels backed up by the US Navy,” Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, told AFP.
President Rodrigo Duterte had said he did not want to anger China by highlighting the territorial row at the summit of Asean leaders in Laos this week.
But the release of the photos came just a few hours before Duterte and other leaders from the 10-member Asean met China’s Li.
Obama is also in Laos for the regional meetings, which will conclude on Thursday with an East Asia summit.