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China May Be Starting Work on Another Artificial Island in S. China Sea

This small pile of crushed coral is out of place on Sabina Reef, and is a suspected sign of reclamation (PCG)
This small pile of crushed coral is out of place on Sabina Reef, and is a suspected sign of reclamation (PCG)

Published May 12, 2024 10:07 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of the Philippines is dispatching a coast guard cutter to investigate suspected Chinese island-building activity at Sabina Shoal, a reef located less than 90 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan. China has built multiple artificial islands atop reefs in the Spratly archipego, constructing "unsinkable carriers" with air defenses, strategic runways and long-range radar installations - but Sabina Shoal would be by far the closest to the Philippines' home islands yet. 

In a statement, the office of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that it was sending one cutter to monitor the "supposed illegal activities of China," and accused Chinese forces of creating "an artificial island." As evidence, Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela said that there were dozens of Chinese research vessels, naval vessels and other ships gathered at Sabina Shoal. He said that there are signs that someone has been dumping crushed coral on the reef at a small scale - potential evidence of reclamation - and that the nearby Chinese flotilla is the likeliest culprit. 

Tensions between Beijing and Manila (and its allies) may be higher now than at any point in the last decade. China claims most of the Spratly Islands as its own, even though most of the archipelago is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. The China Coast Guard has pushed back against Philippine navigational freedom in the Philippine EEZ with force, using water cannons, aggressive maneuvers and occasional shouldering to prevent the Philippine Coast Guard from reaching two particularly sensitive sites.

The latest irritant in the relationship is a purported audio recording of a call between Chinese officials and a Philippine military official. In the recording - which Manila has denounced as a fake - a senior Philippine admiral agreed to reduce Philippine supply convoys to the contested Second Thomas Shoal. (The admiral has gone on personal leave, and the recording's authenticity has not been confirmed.) 

China claims to have struck a deal with the previous Philippine presidential administration to allow Philippine fishermen access to contested areas, so long as the Philippine coast guard dialed back its operations. The current administration denies that such an agreement ever existed, or if it did, that it was an informal arrangement and no longer carries any weight. 

On Friday, Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Año called for the deportation of the Chinese embassy personnel who leaked the purported audio recording. He accused the embassy staff of spreading disinformation in order to sow division and disunity in the Philippines. "Those responsible for these malign influence and interference operations must be removed from the country immediately," he said. 

China is also pushing back on U.S. military operations in the area. The U.S. is a treaty ally of the Philippines, and is its most outspoken supporter in maritime sovereignty disputes with China. 

On Friday, a spokesperson for China's military said that a U.S. Navy destroyer passed close by the Chinese-occupied Paracel Islands, and that Chinese forces "issued a warning to drive it away." The spokesman said that the passage "seriously violates China's sovereignty and security."

The U.S. Navy confirmed that the destroyer USS Halsey transited through the Paracels for a freedom of navigation operation, and said that Halsey was there to challege "unlawful and sweeping maritime claims." China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own, including areas located hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland.