Philippines rebuilding runway on South China Sea island, scene of stand-off with Beijing, think tank says

Satellite images show dredger moored off Thitu Island in disputed waterway, US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 8:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 11:45pm

The Philippines has started repairing a runway and upgrading other facilities on Thitu Island, the South China Sea territory that was last year the scene of a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels, according to a Washington-based think tank.

Satellite images taken on May 17 show two barges anchored near the western edge of the runway, one of which appears to be fitted with a grab dredger, which comprises a crane with clamshell bucket, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said on Saturday.

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The airstrip on Thitu Island was built in the 1970s and was the first of its kind in the Spratly Islands. Over time, however, the western end of the runway crumbled which, coupled with the poor condition of its surface, made it difficult for aircraft to take-off and land.

Besides the repairs to the runway, seven new buildings were built on Thitu last year, four of them close to a residential area on the eastern side of the island.

The stand-off, in August, happened when a fleet of Chinese vessels, including fishing, coastguard and navy ships, blocked a ship from the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources from approaching the area. Philippine congressmen Gary Alejano said at the time that a helicopter dispatched from a Chinese navy vessel had also been seen flying over sandbars to the northwest of Thitu.

The Philippines had long planned to repair its facilities on the island, but the work was put on hold apparently in response to protests from Beijing.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the decision to proceed with the repairs and upgrades on Thitu might be a sign of the growing domestic pressure on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to stand up to Beijing.

“There have been numerous developments: the alleged stand-off between Chinese and Philippine forces at a sandbar close to the island … and China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, all of which have put great pressure on the Duterte administration,” he said.

“[It seems] they have fuelled calls from the Philippines’ political, military and civil circles to revive the refurbishment and upgrading project.”

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Richard Heydarian, assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said the upgrading of facilities by the Philippines was consistent with the 2016 ruling of an international tribunal at the Hague, which rejected China’s historical claims over the disputed waters.

“China’s rapid militarisation of the disputes is clearly forcing other claimant states to fortify their position,” he said.

“The Philippines, which has continuously and effectively exercised control over Thitu and other disputed land features over the past four decades, seems far from engaging in any activity anywhere near what China has done, or even Vietnam.”

The South China Sea is a resource-rich area claimed by Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. The United States is not a claimant state, but has sent military vessels to the disputed waters for freedom of navigation operation.

Last week, an H-6K strategic bomber from the air force of China’s People’s Liberation Army landed on Woody Island in the South China Sea, triggering accusations from the Pentagon that Beijing was increasing tensions and destabilising the region, as well as protests from Vietnam.

China has been steadily building up its civilian and military facilities in the disputed waterway. According to a recent Reuters report, which cited satellite images, China now has almost 400 buildings on Subi Reef, the largest of its seven man-made outposts in the Spratly Islands.

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Neighbouring Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs are home to almost 190 buildings and other structures, and analysts have said the combined facilities are sufficient to accommodate a regiment of between 1,500 and 2,400 troops.

Koh said that in light of Beijing’s building spree, it was likely that other claimants to the South China Sea would feel it necessary to review their infrastructure on the disputed islands.

“But they are more likely to be concerned with maintaining garrisons rather than expanding them,” he said.

The one possible exception was Vietnam, which had in recent years reportedly been engaged in a “small-scale [compared with China] expansion involving land reclamation and defences”, he said.