To Counter China, Philippines Plans Bigger Base in Spratly Islands

Thitu Island (courtesy Municipal Engineering Office, Kalayaan Islands)

Published May 13, 2021 10:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

The government of the Philippines is planning to turn an island in the Spratly archipelago into a new logistics and resupply base, giving it a new way to support its presence and law enforcement operations in the disputed area. China claims the majority of the South China Sea as its own, and its maritime militia of state-backed fishing vessels has been increasingly active in Philippine-claimed waters. 

General Cirilito Sobejana, the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, announced earlier this week that the government was planning a "logistics hub" at Pag-asa Island (also known as Thitu Island). "If we transform it into a logistics hub, our boats will [go] further and our sovereignty patrol in West Philippine Sea will continue," he said at a press conference. "We are patrolling where our fishermen are going as well as where the Chinese ships are staying to make sure that our countrymen will not be threatened or intimidated." 

Thitu is a lightly-garrisoned island with a barracks and an unpaved air strip, and it has been occupied by the Philippines since then 1970s. Manila has been gradually investing in improvements, including a small harbor and beaching ramp for construction work. 

According to Asia Times, Thitu was the very first occupied land feature in the region, and it presaged a wave of competing base construction projects by rival claimants over the ensuing decades - up to and including China's massive installations at Fiery Cross Reef and Mischief Reef.

Chinese militia presence on the rise

The Philippine Coast Guard and fisheries vessels have been holding regular drills in the Spratly Islands, and videos posted by the PCG show that its patrol boat crews have begun challenging Chinese fishing vessel activity within the Philippine EEZ. Despite dozens of diplomatic requests and the stepped-up enforcement activity, the number of Chinese maritime militia fishing vessels in Philippine waters has risen from 200 in March to 300 in May, according to Philippine Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin. 

China has demanded a halt to the Philippines' military drills, but Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana has made clear that Manila does not plan to stop. "While we acknowledge that China’s military capability is more advanced than ours, this does not deter us from defending our national interest, and our dignity as a people, with all that we have," Lorenzana said over the weekend. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was more conciliatory in a televised address released earlier this month. "China remains to be our benefactor and . . . just because we have a conflict with China does not mean to say we have to be rude and disrespectful," Duterte said. "As a matter of fact we have many things to thank China for."

China is the second-largest foreign investor in the Philippines, and it has provided the Philippine government with donated shipments of the Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, which are key resources for the nation's efforts to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.