Photos show China’s ‘massive’ reclamation in West PH Sea

Carmela Fonbuena
The reclaimed Kagitingan Reef is believed to become the site of a runway for China's air assets to be present in a disputed area already dominated by its ships

50% COMPLETE? A runway is believed to be among what China will build at the reclaimed Kagitingan Reef off the coast of Palawan

MANILA, Philippines – Photos obtained by Rappler show China’s “massive” reclamation in Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, a rocky sandbar turned into an artificial island that is believed to become the site of a runway for China’s air assets to be present in a disputed area already dominated by its ships.

Taken on December 12, 2014, the photos show improvements in the reclamation site compared to the first photo published in November by security analysis group IHS Jane, the first to draw international attention to the construction of a possible airstrip and a harbor in the area.

The photos obtained by Rappler from a source also show the presence of dredgers, cargo vessels, and fishing boats. The photos are a part of a collection that show the status of China’s various reclamation projects in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy Evan Garcia on Wednesday, January 21, spoke about photos of the reclamation projects and described them as “massive.” It was not clear if he was referring to the photos Rappler would later obtain and if there were newer photos of the reclamation projects.

“The massive reclamation by China in South China Sea is a clear violation of what we agreed on the DOC (Declaration of Conduct). It is not helpful in terms of finding a way forward,” Garcia said in a media briefing on Wednesday, January 21, following the 5th annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) between the Philippines and the US.

The 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea says no party should take any steps that creates tension in the disputed area.

Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino on Wednesday cited intelligence reports in the Chinese activities in Kagitingan. “It has grown. The developments we have observed have been implemented from the last time we last had Bilateral Strategic Dialogue,” said Batino.

“We are very seriously concerned….It’s very serious,” he said.

Earlier this month, Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr estimated the reclamation activity to be “50% complete.” He expressed concern that the reef could be used for “purposes other than for peaceful use.”

US is concerned, too

China’s activities are a concern for the US, too, said US Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific Daniel Russel. A vocal critic of China’s 9-dash line claim over the West Philippine Sea and other neighboring areas, he is in Manila for the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue.

“It’s true that the Chinese have a number of projects underway in South China Sea reclaiming land in shoals and rocks in sensitive areas whose sovereignty are contested,” Russel said. 

He added, “This is an ongoing concern, not only for claimants, not only ASEAN and Southeast Asia but for all Pacific nations including the US and, frankly, all nations who rely on freedom of navigation, the sea lanes, and the principle of unimpeded lawful commerce.”

Russel called for diplomacy and the “maximum exercise of restraint,” and for claimant states to follow the ASEAN-China DOC.

This is the track the Philippines has taken in filing an international arbitration case against China. “The Philippines stands and has always stood for the rule of law. We are not going to change our track. We are for peaceful resolution of the problems there,” said Garcia.

The Philippines has lodged protests with China to oppose the reclamation activities in the West Philippines Sea but the photos show that China has not been deterred by these acts.

High value exercises on maritime security

While the international arbitration case is pending, the Philippines has been modernizing its military and it is increasing maritime exercises with the US military. 

The regional maritime disputes took center stage at the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, where the treaty allies agreed to prioritize “high value exercises that will focus on maritime security and maritime domain awareness.” (READ: US, PH prioritize ‘high value’ joint exercises amid China row)

“The direction is more cooperative engagements, more activities, and more training,” Batino said.

“We will have our standard Balikatan. I think the Balikatan exercise will center on maritime security. Details will still have to be agreed upon by the two sides,” he explained. 

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is also acquiring assets to further secure the West Philippine Sea. Two of 12 South Korean FA-50 lead in fighter trainers are arriving late 2015, and the weapons of the Philippine Navy’s warships are currently being improved.

We are monitoring the situation, definitely. We have to increase our capabilities and that will only come through modernization. This is a realization – the lack of the needed modernization that we needed to implement earlier,” said Batino.

Runway

Rappler sources whose tasks include monitoring the West Philippine Sea have earlier said there is no doubt China is building an airstrip in Kagitingan Reef, which one of the sources said will be used as a command base. (READ: China to finish construction of airstrip in West PH Sea this year’)

The Philippines claims the reef as part of the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys) with a central government based in nearby Pag-asa (Tithu) island – the second largest island in the Spratlys and is occupied by a small Filipino community.

A Chinese airstrip will dramatically change the security situation in the West Philippine Sea, where 6 countries, including the Philippines and China, have overlapping claims.

An airstrip will allow Chinese planes, including even fighter jets, to land on the artificial island and get very near the country, a scenario that raises serious concerns, the sources said. 

It will also mean China can stay longer in the area. Harbors can also host tankers and other sea vessels.

Chinese ships have stopped harassing Philippine ships since the reclamation activities began, noted one of the sources with a sarcastic laugh.

“It is perhaps because they already got what they wanted,” the source said. – Rappler.com

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