A United States-based analyst warned that China will soon effectively control the South China Sea amid the reported continuous developments of Beijing’s artificial islands in the heavily disputed waters.
According to Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Gregory Poling, China’s construction of artificial islands is an apparent militarization of the area.
“I think we kinda see the outline already. The island-building was hard to miss. You know when you’re building islands that are on front page of every paper, but since that stopped they’ve kind of moved on to phase two, which is putting all the infrastructures on to that island. And now, clearly, that infrastructure is military in nature,” Poling told reporters on Friday, February 2.
Among the areas China had constructed artificial islands include the Fiery Cross Reef, also referred to Kagitingan Reef, along the Spratly archipelago.
China likewise had massive island buildings on Subi Reef (Zamora), Mischief Reef (Panganiban), Cuarteron Reef (Calderon), Gaven Reef (Burgos), Johnson South Reef (Mabini), and Hughes Reef (McKennan).
Poling added, “The days of arguing whether or not the Chinese are building civilian or military bases are long behind us. You do not build 72 fighter jet hangars for search and rescue or for fishing shelters.”
“You build them because you want an airbase. Now maybe there are civilian structures or two but first and foremost these are military facilities,” he stressed.
Aerial obtained by Inquirer, and were published Monday, February 5, showed that China “is almost finished transforming seven reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago into island fortresses.”
The photos, Inquirer said, were mostly taken between June and December 2017 from an altitude of 1,500 meters and showed that the islands are in the “final stages of development as air and naval bases.”
With the military buildup nearing its completion, Poling further warned China will soon establish “de facto control” in the area, trumping its other rival claimants.
“You’re gonna see more signaling [systems], intelligence [facilities] and things like that. You’re gonna keep on seeing the increase of number of Chinese coast guards and the maritime militias and naval ships making calls to these. And little by little, the Chinese plan seems to be to establish de facto control,” Poling remarked.
He went on to say, “Maybe without provoking an immediate sharp clash but by sheer force of numbers, eventually there’s gonna be a Coast Guard and Navy ship close enough to intervene no matter what any claimants are trying to do anywhere in the [sea]. And they are gonna have the radars and patrol craft to make sure that nothing moves within the South China Sea without them seeing it.”
‘No longer news’
Malacañang, meanwhile, downplayed reports saying that China is nearly finished militarizing Philippine-claimed reefs in the South China Sea, saying that the structures were already built before President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in 2016.
Palace Spokesperson Harry Roque said China’s military build up in the area is not “news” anymore.
“You know when I saw the headline, yes, it’s a fact perhaps, but is that news? I don’t think so. I think the moment that they start the reclamation, they declared that they will use it, they will have military facilities into the islands,” Roque said.
Despite reports on the military build up, Malacañang said it cannot wage war and could only continue to rely on China’s “good faith.”
“Whether we like it [or not], they intended to use them as military bases, so what do you want us to say? All we could do is to extract a promise from China not to reclaim any new artificial islands,” Roque said.
He continued, “If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what do you want us to do? We cannot declare war. Not only is it illegal, but it is also it is impossible for us to declare war at this point.”
No foreign explorations
Duterte on Monday has ordered a stop to all scientific research and exploration by foreigners in Philippine Rise, formerly called Benham Rise.
In a Facebook post, Philippine Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol quoted Duterte saying during a Cabinet meeting: “Let me be very clear about this: the Philippine Rise is ours and any insinuation that it is open to everybody should end with this declaration.”
“Henceforth, only Filipino scientists will be allowed to conduct researches and exploration in the Philippine Rise,” Duterte added.
According to Piñol, the president ordered the navy to chase away any foreign vessel sailing within the Philippine Rise, as well as the Air Force to patrol the area.
“He (Duterte) directed the Department of National Defense to deploy Navy vessels and the Philippine Air Force to conduct flyovers in the area to check on the presence of foreign vessels,” Piñol added.
The Philippine Rise is not in the South China Sea and no other country has made claim to it. It is located along the Pacific Ocean 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Isabela, and is believed to be rich in mineral and gas deposits.