New satellite images show that China has started fresh construction work in the disputed South China Sea, a sign that Beijing is continuing to strengthen its military reach across the vital trade area. Samantha Vadas reports.
“What will I do? Declare a war against China?” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says his militarily inferior country can’t stop China’s actions in contested waters, responding to a reported plan by Beijing to construct a station in a disputed shoal off the Philippines’ northwest coast. Picture: AFP
“WHAT will I do? Declare a war against China?” An aggressive new expansion by Beijing into the South China Sea has rattled Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
The controversial president said overnight that his militarily inferior country can’t stop China’s expansionist actions in contested waters.
He pointed out even the might of the United States was not deterring Beijing.
Beijing has already reclaimed large areas around several islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago and elsewhere in the South China Sea, as well as installing military facilities on some of them.
However analysts warn that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230km from Luzon, the most populous island in the Philippines.
Duterte’s outburst comes after reports China plans to do exactly that.
It wants to construct an “environmental monitoring station” in the disputed shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
It’s a significant turnaround for Duterte.
After winning office in June last year, he signalled a dramatic diplomatic shift for the Philippines away from the United States and towards China.
“We cannot stop China from doing his thing, the Americans were not able to stop it,” Duterte said in a news conference at the airport in southern Davao city before flying to Myanmar.
“Sir, what will I do? Declare a war against China?
“I can, but we’ll all lose our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation.”
Two Chinese jet fighters during a military drill in the South China Sea. Picture: AFPSource:AFP
The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs has said that it was trying to verify the news reports about China’s construction plans on Scarborough Shoal and that it would refrain from commenting while doing so.
The top official in Sansha City, which has administered China’s island claims in the South China Sea since 2012, was quoted by the official Hainan Daily newspaper as saying that preparations were underway to build an “environmental monitoring station” on Scarborough Shoal.
The chain of heavily fortified bases already nearing completion were originally described by Beijing as being “navigational and air-sea-rescue” facilities.
The preparatory work on Scarborough and on five other islands in the Paracel island group off Vietnam were among the government’s top priorities for 2017, Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie was quoted as saying in an interview published in the paper’s Monday edition and seen online Friday in Beijing. No other details were provided.
If the construction plans on Scarborough proceed, it would be China’s first permanent structure in recent memory on a shoal that has been at the heart of a territorial dispute with China and would likely reignite concerns over Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions to cement its claims in the crucial waterway, where an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
It will also be a defiance of last year’s ruling by an arbitration tribunal in The Hague that invalidated China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea on historical grounds.
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the plane US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson boarded at the airport in Beijing, China, yesterday. Picture: APSource:AP
SCARBOROUGH ‘RED LINE’
US diplomats have previously repeatedly said that reclamation work on the Scarborough shoal would be seen as crossing a red line because of its proximity to the main Philippine islands.
The White House is yet to the ‘monitoring station’ proposal.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has met with President Xi Jinping of China for 30 minutes in Beijing and told him that US President Donald Trump anticipates a meeting “soon”.
But Tillerson took the unusual step for a US secretary of state in not taking a press entourage with him on the visit. We only have official White House statements and Beijing’s state-run media accounts of the talks.
Xi and Tillerson agreed that opportunities existed for greater co-operation between the two countries, though differences remain, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said overnight following the meeting.
While few other details of his talks have been released, Tillerson appeared to strike a cordial tone during his meetings in Beijing, in contrast to Trump’s tough talk on Chinese economic competition during his presidential campaign.
But Tillerson himself has previously adopted a more confrontational tone.
During his Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of state, he compared China’s island-building and military deployments to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and suggested China’s access to the islands should not be allowed.
Workers chat near a map of the South China Sea on display at a maritime defense educational facility in Nanjing in east China’s Jiangsu province. China calls the islands in the South China Sea its ‘inherent territory’. Picture: APSource:AP
Military outposts on the Scarborough shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries’ navies from entering the area.
It’s part of what Chinese military doctrine calls the “First Island Chain”, a region which it considers to be fully under Chinese influence and must remain free of foreign military infrastructure — including US carrier groups.
This chain is defined as the string of archipelagos including the Kuril Islands, Japanese Archipelago, Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the northern Philippines, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula.
The construction of heavily fortified island bases in the Parcel and Spratly Islands, with their associated airfields and harbours, could potentially give Beijing the option to ‘shut down’ all access to the South and East China Seas.
The bases themselves, which have recently been revealed to have fortified gun and missile emplacents, could house large numbers of combat aircraft capable of standing up to even a US carrier battle group.
A woman walks past a billboard featuring an image of an island in South China Sea on display with Chinese words that read: ‘South China Sea, our beautiful motherland, we won’t let go an inch’. Picture: APSource:AP
PHILIPPINES UNDER SIEGE
When the international court of arbitration in July ruled in favour of the Philippines, Duturte dismissed its significance.
Now he warns that he would invoke the international arbitration ruling if the Chinese “start to tinker with the entitlement,” apparently meaning when Beijing starts to tap the offshore area’s resources.
Chinese government ships seized control of Scarborough in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine vessels. China then blocked Filipinos from fishing in the shoal, which has a vast, coral-encircled lagoon that also serves as a storm shelter for Asian fishermen.
The Philippines then took its dispute to the international court of arbitration, but China ignored both the complaint and the ruling which found Beijing had violated Filipino rights.
Duterte overnight said he would tell the Chinese: “Just keep it (the waters) open and do not interfere with our coast guard.”
Earlier this month Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was very concerned that Chinese survey ships had been seen near Benham Rise — waters east of the main Philippine island of Luzon that are indisputably Philippine territory — sometimes for as long as a month.
But Duturte also brushed aside as ‘nit picking’ concerns over the survey ships.
“We are now improving the economy because of the help of China. Why will you be so shameless just because they are passing by?” he told reporters.