Dismal PH outposts in the Spratlys
Malacañang has taken strong exception to a report in this paper, quoting observations by local officials and international experts alike, that the Philippines appears to have been left behind by rival claimant-countries in developing territories it occupies in the South China Sea.
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia security expert and professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defense Force Academy, for instance, noted that the Philippines appears to exercise “a form of self-restraint in allowing some of its facilities to fall into disrepair and in not undertaking new construction to keep China from exerting diplomatic pressure.”
President Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque was quick to dismiss this characterization: “If they’ve overtaken us in asserting their rights and sovereignty, I dispute that,” he said, adding that the Philippines is the only one among the claimants “that can claim sovereignty over the islands that we own” — presumably alluding to the favorable ruling the country had won in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016 that invalidated China’s competing claim to waters and features within Philippine territory.
But the observation, in fact, is hardly new. In April 2017, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, along with a few other military officials and Palawan Gov. Jose Alvarez, flew to Pag-asa Island — the largest of the nine islands that the Philippines occupies in the Spratlys, known collectively as the Kalayaan Island Group — to announce that the Duterte administration was setting aside P1.6 billion to develop Pag-asa into a tourist attraction and a marine research center.
Each of the other islands would also be allocated P20 million to build structures on them.
Citing China, which had developed Subi Reef — an island 26 kilometers (14 nautical miles) from Pag-asa — into a highly fortified outpost, Lorenzana was quoted as saying: “You’ve seen the other side … You saw Subi Reef. We are the ones who are being left behind here.”
As for Vietnam, it has “also built up [its islands] so we should have done this before.”
What should have been done long before was for Pag-asa and the other Philippine territories to be developed to host permanent, sustainable and thriving habitation, civilian and military, to strengthen the country’s territorial claim on them.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and China have all done extensive work on their own claimed islands. Thus, most of Vietnam’s outposts bristle with artillery, gun emplacements, solar panels and bunkers, while Malaysia has transformed one of its islands into both a naval base and a luxury resort.
The Philippines’ outpost in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, on the other hand, continues to be a desolate, dispiriting picture of the country’s state of commitment to its far-flung territories: The BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting, decrepit World War II ship, was intentionally grounded there by the Philippine Navy in 1999 to serve as the garrison for the few hardy Filipino soldiers stationed on rotation as the bulwark of the country’s territorial claim on the shoal.
Pag-asa does have an airstrip, a watchtower, a naval station, and a community of some 100 civilians. But the 1.3-km airstrip is eroded and too short for big aircraft.
China, meanwhile, has built 3-km airstrips on three Philippine-claimed reefs that it has turned into massive, missile-armed artificial islands.
Pag-asa also doesn’t have a dock, forcing large vessels to anchor far from shore and unload to smaller boats to deliver basic goods to the local community.
Lorenzana’s visit last year carried news that a port, at last, would be constructed. But more than a year later, nothing has been done.
Against that sorry history, “left behind” seems benign a description of the Philippines’ decades-long neglect of its frontiers in the Spratlys. It is a negligence now made even more acute by China’s moist eyes on them.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.