And now, Chinese ‘weather stations’
China said it wanted to ensure navigational safety in the South China Sea, and so built what it called weather observation stations on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs in the Spratly group of islands. The trouble is, these features lie west of the Philippines and are claimed by the country, which has long called them by the names Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban reefs, respectively.
Until it came to light via a report in the South China Morning Post last Thursday, China’s latest surreptitious action would have remained unnoticed.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, has pressed the Duterte administration to protest the installation of the “weather stations,” which he said could serve a military purpose—a possibility that Beijing does not deny. But Lu Kang, spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said all the data collected by the stations would be used to provide more precise weather forecasts for the crews of ships and fishing vessels.
Still, Batongbacal is skeptical, given China’s record of seizing Philippine-claimed islands and transforming them into military garrisons, which smacks of doublespeak on the part of Beijing. In May, the People’s Liberation Army announced it had landed long-range bombers, including the nuclear-capable H-6K, on one of the islands. It came weeks after China had jolted the world with news that it had deployed antiship and surface-to-air missiles on the disputed features.
In light of the growing rancor between the United States and China, and the strategic importance of the region to global trade and commerce, Beijing’s unilateral actions in the Spratlys bear greater concern and scrutiny, as they only stoke tensions in the flashpoint area. Panganiban Reef lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone as defined by the Philippines’ 2016 victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but China has brazenly outfitted the reef into a military bastion, with an airfield and landing strip, that can now serve as a listening post to monitor the activities of the United States and other countries in the area.
The United States, the Philippines’ traditional ally that has been the subject of President Duterte’s broadsides, has stepped up “freedom of navigation operations” in the 1.35-million-square-mile sea to push back China’s claim. And so has Japan, which conducted a naval drill; Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, New Zealand and Britain have also held their own joint naval drills. Vietnam and Indonesia, which have overlapping claims on specific portions of the region, are likewise standing up to Beijing’s muscle-flexing.
In contrast, in typical fashion, there has been no peep of protest so far from Malacañang over the latest Chinese provocation. Initially, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the “right time” would come for President Duterte to raise with Chinese President Xi Jinping the matter of the Hague ruling, which junks China’s sweeping claim and upholds the Philippines’ sovereign rights to exploit resources in the area. Panelo eventually said Malacañang would file a protest—but only after it has verified the presence of the weather stations, which Beijing itself had confirmed.
The so-called weather stations on the three Philippine reefs are fresh proof that the Chinese are not interested in any fair, amicable and transparent process to settle territorial issues in the region. It sees the whole of the South China Sea as its property, despite international law and the global community of nations saying otherwise, and is doing everything it can to secure its hold on the area, hence the arming of its seized islands.
Malacañang, unfortunately, has chosen to avert its gaze as a policy, in exchange for the promise of Chinese largesse. Panelo’s statement is the same sad, submissive refrain the country has heard over and over from various officials of the Duterte administration when it comes to the China question, as it cozies up to the superpower neighbor that’s been on a charm offensive to buy influence from other countries with promises of billions of dollars in investments and loans.
From harassed Filipino fishermen to militarized islands to missiles to “weather stations”—what else will Malacañang see fit to shrug off, until the Philippines has completely lost its claim to its own waters?
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