Pho­tos ob­tained by the In­quirer show a pair of Xian Y-7 mil­i­tary trans­port air­craft on Pan­gani­ban Reef, in­di­cat­ing Bei­jing is step­ping up its mil­i­ta­riza­tion of Philip­pine-claimed ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea.

Philippine Daily Inquirer - - FRONT PAGE - By Frances G. Man­gos­ing @FMan­gos­ingINQ

Two Chi­nese mil­i­tary trans­port planes have been pho­tographed on Pan­gani­ban Reef, mark­ing the first re­ported pres­ence of this type of air­craft in Philip­pine ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea and rais­ing the prospect that China will base war­planes there.

Pan­gani­ban Reef—in­ter­na­tion­ally known as Mis­chief Reef—is lo­cated within the Philip­pines’ 370-kilo­me­ter ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The wa­ters within this zone are known lo­cally as West Philip­pine Sea.

Sur­veil­lance im­ages taken on Jan. 6 showed two Xian Y-7 mil­i­tary trans­port planes 20 to 50 me­ters apart on the ramp near Run­way 21 on Pan­gani­ban, one of seven reefs in the Spratlys that China has trans­formed into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands with mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

The pho­tos were given to the In­quirer by a source.

The Armed Forces of the Philip­pines de­clined to com­ment on the im­ages. The Chi­nese Em­bassy in Manila did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

The In­quirer checked the pho­tos for mod­i­fi­ca­tions, but there ap­peared to be none.

It was un­clear if it was the first ever pres­ence of mil­i­tary air­craft on Pan­gani­ban Reef. It could not also be deter­mined how long the planes had been there. Ae­rial pho­tos of the reef dated Dec. 30, 2017, pub-

lished by the In­quirer on Feb. 5, 2018, in­di­cated no pres­ence of air­planes.

China landed a civil­ian air­craft on Pan­gani­ban Reef on July 13, 2016, a day af­ter the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion in The Hague ruled in a case brought by the Philip­pines and de­clared Bei­jing’s claim to al­most the en­tire South China Sea in­valid. It was as if China, which did not take part in the ar­bi­tra­tion, was telling the court that it did not rec­og­nize its rul­ing.

Be­sides Pan­gani­ban, China has also trans­formed Kag­itin­gan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuar­teron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (John­son South), Zamora (Subi) and McKen­nan (Hughes) reefs into ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands.

A Chi­nese mil­i­tary air­craft landed on Kag­itin­gan in 2016 re­port­edly to evac­u­ate three ill work­ers to Hainan Is­land for treat­ment. There has been no con­firmed pres­ence of mil­i­tary planes on Zamora so far. Three of China’s ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in the Spratlys have 3-kilo­me­ter run­ways.

The Hague court’s 2016 rul­ing says Pan­gani­ban Reef be­longs to the Philip­pines. Part of the rul­ing says the reef, lo­cated about 232 km from Palawan, forms part of the Philip­pines’ EEZ and con­ti­nen­tal shelf, and China has vi­o­lated the Philip­pines’ sovereign rights with its is­land-build­ing in the area.

But China has re­fused to ac­knowl­edge the ver­dict and con­tin­ues to in­sist it has sovereignty over al­most the en­tire 3.5mil­lion-square-kilo­me­ter South China Sea.

Aside from the Philip­pines and China, Viet­nam, Malaysia, Brunei and Tai­wan also have claims in the South China Sea, which is criss­crossed by vi­tal sea-lanes through which $5 tril­lion in global com­merce passes ev­ery year and where islets, reefs and atolls are be­lieved to be sit­ting atop vast en­ergy re­serves.

China to up the ante

“If they could land trans­ports now, in the fu­ture they might want to land more provoca­tive and desta­bi­liz­ing types of as­sets such as fighter jets and bombers. And over time, such con­sis­tent but creep­ing prac­tice would be­come a fact, in ef­fect deal­ing a fait ac­com­pli to Manila, should it choose to stay silent or down­play the is­sue, and it could be­come ‘rou­tinized’ or ‘nor­mal­ized’ op­er­a­tions for China,” Collin Koh, a re­search fel­low at Sin­ga­pore’s Ra­jarat­nam School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies’ Mar­itime Se­cu­rity Pro­gram, told the In­quirer.

The Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion has re­peat­edly played down the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of China in the South China Sea and if it con­tin­ues to do so, “this could em­bolden Bei­jing to up the ante in the fu­ture,” Koh said.

“There must be cer­tain cal­cu­la­tions within the Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal elite cir­cles that Manila is in Bei­jing’s pocket, be­cause of Pres­i­dent Duterte’s de­sire for rap­proche­ment and quest for Chi­nese aid and in­vest­ments, which thus con­clude that they could pos­si­bly get away with fur­ther acts of mil­i­ta­riza­tion,” he said.

“There’s al­ways also a con­cern about the Amer­i­can fac­tor in the back of their minds, but they could have as­sessed that so long as the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion chooses to down­play these de­vel­op­ments, there’s also noth­ing much the Amer­i­cans can do,” he added.

‘In­ter­est­ing rev­e­la­tion’

The land­ing of mil­i­tary trans­port planes on Pan­gani­ban Reef, he said, is an “in­ter­est­ing rev­e­la­tion,” and if the Philip­pine gov­ern­ment has been aware of the pres­ence of the mil­i­tary planes but re­fuses to raise it in pub­lic only high­lights the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­sire to “not rock the boat with China” de­spite the on­go­ing talks on a code of con­duct in the South China Sea with the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean).

Tensions be­tween the Philip­pines and China over the West Philip­pine Sea eased when Mr. Duterte as­sumed of­fice in 2016, put the Philip­pine vic­tory in The Hague on the back burner, and be­gan to court Bei­jing for aid and in­vest­ment.

Last week, Mr. Duterte re­turned home from his third visit to China with $9.5 bil­lion in in­vest­ment and aid pledges from the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment. Mr. Duterte and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping also held talks for a pos­si­ble joint ex­plo­ration for oil and gas in the West Philip­pine Sea.

The Pres­i­dent said he did not take up the South China Sea dis­pute dur­ing his meet­ing with Xi be­cause he be­lieved it was “not the ap­pro­pri­ate time.”

“Why should I ruin it? They are now of­fer­ing joint ex­plo­ration and from the mouth of the pres­i­dent of China, he said, then ex­plo­ration, maybe we can be ex­tra gen­er­ous ... I am not ready to sac­ri­fice the lives of my po­lice­men and sol­diers for noth­ing. I’d rather talk about busi­ness. Let it float there, it can­not be stolen. But China is com­ing in, of­fer­ing some­thing,” he told re­porters in Davao City early on Fri­day af­ter ar­riv­ing from China.

‘No giv­ing up of claims’

De­spite crit­i­cisms of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­featist at­ti­tude to­ward China, For­eign Sec­re­tary Alan Peter Cayetano in­sists the Philip­pines has not given up its claims in the South China Sea.

“[T]he pros­per­ity of the Filipinos com­ing from China is not be­cause we gave up sovereignty but be­cause how we are deal­ing with is­sues of ter­ri­to­rial claims and sovereignty. China has not asked us, and I can tell you this very hon­estly whether closed door or in open, they have never asked us to give up our claims. They have sim­ply asked us to put some or­der in how we will dis­cuss these claims and where we should dis­cuss these claims,” he told jour­nal­ists last week in Hong Kong, where the Philip­pine del­e­ga­tion pro­ceeded af­ter the Boao Fo­rum for Asia on Hainan Is­land.

Cayetano said ear­lier that the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion held China to its “good faith” prom­ise not to re­claim new fea­tures in the South China Sea.

“As of now, if we com­pare the Aquino ad­min­is­tra­tion strat­egy and the Duterte strat­egy, we sim­ply are mak­ing do with a bad sit­u­a­tion but we have stopped the bleed­ing. Mean­ing, we have stopped other claimants from get­ting new fea­tures, we have started dis­cus­sion on the [code of con­duct], we have jump-started re­la­tion­ship: peo­ple to peo­ple; cul­tural ex­changes; ed­u­ca­tional ex­changes; mil­i­tary to mil­i­tary. Yes we­want to fight for what is ours but we don’t want a war. And no one in our re­gion wants a war be­cause no one will win,” he said.

Slow step of op­er­a­tions

Jay Ba­tong­ba­cal, di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of the Philip­pines’ In­sti­tute for Mar­itime Af­fairs and Law of the Sea, said the pres­ence of the planes on Pan­gani­ban Reef showed China had con­tin­u­ous op­er­a­tions in the area.

“This means they’re go­ing there both by air and sea. It in­di­cates full reach of their op­er­a­tions,” Ba­tong­ba­cal said in an in­ter­view.

This means, he said, the de­ploy­ment of the cargo planes is just “an­other slow step” in their op­er­a­tions: “They will make it ap­pear that it’s not threat­en­ing. They started out with cargo planes first, and they would say these are nor­mal op­er­a­tions. We know they would do that even­tu­ally and it’s ev­i­dent on their timetable.”

What should be watched out for, Ba­tong­ba­cal said, is the pres­ence of fighter jets or bombers.

“If this hap­pens, it means they are ex­pand­ing their op­er­a­tions in their bases. Even­tu­ally this will be more fre­quent un­til it be­comes per­ma­nent. Right now, [the trans­port planes are] ei­ther for con­struc­tion peo­ple or mil­i­tary who op­er­ate the fa­cil­i­ties. Maybe they’re part of the ro­ta­tion,” he said.

Tense and busy week

It was a tense and busy week in the South China Sea last week with demon­stra­tions of power by both China and the United States.

Xi presided over the largest mar­itime pa­rade in the dis­puted wa­ters on Thurs­day, with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of least 10,000 per­son­nel, dozens of fighter jets, sub­marines, ships and air­craft, to show off China’s naval might.

The US air­craft car­rier USS Theodore Roo­sevelt ar­rived in Manila last Wed­nes­day for a port visit. Be­fore its stopover, it showed off its ca­pa­bil­i­ties with flight deck op­er­a­tions in the South China Sea. It hosted a re­cep­tion for Philip­pine gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, mil­i­tary and busi­ness lead­ers on Fri­day night.

The United States, which has no claims in the South China Sea, has no of­fi­cial po­si­tion in the dis­putes but has re­peat­edly as­serted its right to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion.

The Wall Street Jour­nal last week re­ported that China had also started de­ploy­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions and radar jam­ming equip­ment on Pan­gani­ban and Kag­itin­gan, spurring sus­pi­cions that Bei­jing would use its bases on the two ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands to en­force its claims in the South China Sea.

Dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent

Pan­gani­ban is within the Philip­pines’ EEZ but China has oc­cu­pied it for decades. Be­fore its trans­for­ma­tion into the largest of the seven ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in the Spratly ar­chi­pel­ago, it was a small out­post that China claimed in the 1990s as a shel­ter for its fish­er­men.

“It was dis­cov­ered by ac­ci­dent when I was na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser. A [Filipino] fish­er­man­who es­caped [from Chi­nese de­ten­tion] told us about it,” Jose Al­monte, who was na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Fidel Ramos when China seized Pan­gani­ban Reef in 1995, told the In­quirer in an in­ter­view.

“They’ve been con­struct­ing for years. They’ve been there since early ’90s,” he said.

The Philip­pines ral­lied Asean for sup­port in try­ing to shoo China away, but the eco­nomic de­pen­dence of some mem­bers of the bloc on China had stood in the way of unity within the group­ing.

China started mas­sive dredg­ing op­er­a­tions on the seven reefs in the Spratlys in early 2014 in an­tic­i­pa­tion of an ad­verse rul­ing from the Hague court. In 2015, Xi said dur­ing his trip to Wash­ing­ton that China wouldn’t mil­i­ta­rize the ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands.

‘Barangay of China’

For the Philip­pines, which has one of the weak­est mil­i­taries in the re­gion, war is not an op­tion. It doesn’t have to be, ac­cord­ing to Al­monte.

The Philip­pines, Al­monte said, could mo­bi­lize world opin­ion, as “China, who wants to be a su­per­power, is sen­si­tive to world opin­ion.”

“We should con­tinue to up­hold the de­ci­sion of [the Hague court]. Of course, we can’t im­ple­ment it be­cause we have no armed forces. Even the [United Na­tions] can’t im­ple­ment it. And Amer­ica will not im­ple­ment it even if they can. So we should cam­paign for world opin­ion,” he said.

“Here, Amer­ica will help us be­cause we are not cre­at­ing con­di­tions for them to go to war with China. If we want to cam­paign in the world, they will be with us,” he added.

“I’ve said this be­fore in my speeches. There are only two forces that can solve the South China Sea dis­pute: China and world opin­ion,” he said.

But China will never do it and it is even will­ing to vi­o­late in­ter­na­tional law for its am­bi­tious claims, he said.

“We have won in The Hague but they dis­re­garded it. Duterte al­lowed them to go with it so you re­move China,” he said.

Al­monte also warned that too much cozy­ing up to China could have its con­se­quences, cit­ing the strug­gle of Sri Lanka to re­pay its mas­sive loans to China. It was forced to lease one of its ports to China for 99 years to be able to pay its huge debt, he said.

“If we do not man­age prop­erly the so-called op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­vided by China in terms of loans, grants, we will be­come a barangay (vil­lage) of China,” he said.

Al­monte de­scribed the South China Sea as the “mar­itime heart­land of South­east Asia.”

“Any­body who con­trols [the South China Sea] will con­trol the pe­riph­eral coun­tries. Any­one who con­trols the pe­riph­eral coun­tries will con­trol the South­east Asia re­gion. Who con­trols the South­east Asia re­gion will [have] in­flu­ence in [the] In­dian Ocean and the West­ern Pa­cific [re­gions],” he said.

There must be cer­tain cal­cu­la­tions within the Chi­nese po­lit­i­cal elite cir­cles that Manila is in Bei­jing’s pocket, be­cause of Pres­i­dent Duterte’s de­sire for rap­proche­ment and quest for Chi­nese aid and in­vest­ments, which thus con­clude that they could pos­si­bly get away with fur­ther acts of mil­i­ta­riza­tion

Collin Koh Re­search fel­low

AE­RIAL IM­AGES TwoXian Y-7 Chi­nese mil­i­tary trans­port planes were spot­ted on Pan­gani­ban Reef (Mis­chief Reef) in these en­larged sur­veil­lance pho­tos taken last Jan. 6 and given to the In­quirer by a source. It is be­lieved to be the first known pres­ence of...


Collin Koh


Jay Ba­tong­ba­cal

Jose Al­monte


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