DN - Defence Notes

China intimidates Philippine reconstruction on Thitu Island

8th February 2019 - 10:06 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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The Philippines has been constructing a new beaching ramp on Thitu Island in the South China Sea, a move that has drawn firm resistance from its supposed new friend, China. The latter activated dozens of vessels, including those from the China Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army Navy, to intimidate Manila’s activities on the island.

On 4 February, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that the ramp would be finished in early 2019. It will allow construction materials and equipment to be delivered to this largest of the Philippines’ nine features in the Spratly Islands.

One urgent need is to upgrade Thitu Island’s crumbling runway. The 1,300m unpaved runway, called Rancudo Airfield, is used by the Philippine Air Force for reconnaissance missions. As far back as 2014, Manila announced plans to repair the airstrip using US government aid.

Approximately 100 civilians and a small military garrison live on the 92-acre island, referred to as Pag-asa by the Philippines, which acts as an administrative centre for Manila’s claims in the Spratlys.

Repair work commenced on the runway last May, but satellite imagery suggests that work was suspended while the ramp was being built.

Lorenzana commented, ‘The problem with Pagasa is that you have to bring in everything you need for its repair – steel bars, sand, gravel, heavy equipment. You need a beaching ramp to bring these in… So, I believe it should be finished by the first quarter of this year, this beaching ramp.’

China despatched vessels from Subi Reef, which is just 12nm from Thitu, with the number of boats reaching a peak of 95 on 20 December, according to a recent report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Satellite imagery showed just 42 vessels were present on 26 January, as numbers have ebbed and flowed. Chinese fishing vessels mostly anchor anywhere from 2nm to 5.5nm west of Thitu Island, while PLAN and CCG vessels operate to the south and west.

The report suggested that Chinese forces had ‘settled into a pattern of monitoring and intimidation after their initial large deployment failed to convince Manila to halt construction’.

At one point the Philippine Navy (PN) frigate BRP Ramon Alcaraz was holding position 7nm away from Thitu.

AMTI commented: ‘This deployment is consistent with prior examples of China’s “cabbage strategy”, which employs concentric layers of fishing, law enforcement and naval vessels around contested areas.’

A causeway is being extended to the edge of the encircling reef on the west coast, something the PN had expressed a desire for way back in 1999. Once finished, larger ships with deeper drafts will be able to land supplies directly onto the island without the need to offload cargo to smaller vessels.

The AMTI report noted: ‘More recent imagery from January 11 and 26 of this year show that the reclamation work is more ambitious than a simple beaching ramp. Both images are partially obscured by clouds, but they reveal excavators depositing sand over an area of approximately 8 acres, or more than 32,000m², to the north of the existing causeway.’

In fact, the Philippine government had previously revealed that it plans to construct a desalination plant, marine research facility, fish port, solar power array and improved housing on Pag-asa.

Lorenzana later said that land would be reclaimed to extend the runway by 300m.

The AMTI authors added: ‘The fishing vessels display all the hallmarks of belonging to China’s maritime militia, including having no gear in the water that would indicate fishing activity and disabling their automatic identification system (AIS) transceivers to hide their activities (for instance, on December 20 only 1 of the 95 or more vessels engaged in the deployment transmitted AIS data).’

Of course, Philippine plans to reclaim reefs or to build facilities are extremely modest compared to what either Vietnam or China has done in the South China Sea. The Philippines is reclaiming a mere 8 acres of land, compared to 120 acres for Vietnam and an astonishing 3,200 acres for China.

Nevertheless, China vociferously opposes such development work by Manila.

The Philippines announced last May that it planned to build five lighthouses in the Spratly Islands. One was completed on West York Island last November.

Beijing also declared plans to construct a ‘rescue centre’ on Fiery Cross Reef, a feature claimed by both the Philippines and Vietnam. Lorenzana suggested that Manila should protest such a move.

Many in the Philippines are alarmed at President Rodrigo Duterte’s détente with China, fearful that he is throwing away sovereign rights in the process.

One recent point of alarm surrounds Subic Bay, a US naval base until 1992 and a sheltered deep-water harbour 270km east of the flashpoint Scarborough Shoal.

Hanjin Philippines, a subsidiary of a South Korean shipbuilder, announced last month that it was pulling out of Subic Bay because of bankruptcy. Very quickly, two Chinese shipbuilders declared keenness to occupy this 300 hectares of land in Subic Bay. This raised an outcry of the threat that China poses, both militarily and through its One Belt, One Road initiative.

One critic is retired VADM Alexander Pama, former chief of the PN, who said on Facebook: ‘Although it is a commercial shipyard, nothing can prevent the owners from making it into a de facto naval base and a maritime facility for other security purposes. He pointed out that any Chinese takeover would be ‘a very significant national issue’.

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