CLOSE-UP PHOTOS: China's artificial islands in West PH Sea
MANILA, Philippines – Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, the chief of the military's Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom), can only watch as China turns reefs and features in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) into artificial islands.
"We are monitoring the aggressive development of island reefs and features. We're closely monitoring developments in the West Philippine Sea," Lopez told Rappler on the sidelines of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) homecoming over the weekend, February 21.
Lopez added: "We respect our case. The government policy is to maintain moral high ground. If we see new developments, we report it to the Department of Foreign Affairs."
One of the weakest military's in Asia, the Philippines filed an international arbitration case against China. It has been a slow process but, in the words of a former naval officer keeping a close watch on the case, it is "our best shot."
"Talagang hindi naman natin kaya e. (We do not have the capacity). We will have to wait for the result of the arbitration case," the source said.
The Philippines is hoping to win the case and for the international community to impose sanctions on China. Ultimately, the Philippines wants a "status quo ante" ruling or for China to demolish its developments in the disputed area.
There are those who fear that it may be too much of wishful thinking, since China's artificial islands are already in the advanced stages of development.
Rappler published in January close-up photos of Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, showing how China has successfully turned the rocky sandbar into an artificial island inspite of a number of protests filed by the Philippines.
These photos were obtained from a source in the security sector.
Focus on Panganiban
The focus has been on Kagitingan Reef because of concerns that China is building an airstrip that will change the security dynamics in the region – it will allow China's air assets to be present in a disputed area already dominated by its ships.
"The pictures show it is a runway. It is an airstrip," Lopez said. (READ: 'China to finish construction of airstrip in West PH Sea this year')
Outside the artificial islands, China has also been busy in other areas in the West Philippine Sea.
The DFA confirmed more Chinese development activities in Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, which was "taken" by China from the Philippines in 1996.
Chinese vessels also rammed Philippine fishing vessels near Scarborough Shoal in late January, prompting more protest notes from the Philippines.
There has been no recent cases of harassment in Ayungin Shoal, said Lopez, but at least two Chinese Coast Guard ships are circling the area at any given time.
There are at least 10 fishing vessels all over the West Philippine Sea, with Chinese and Vietnamese ships dwarfing Philippine vessels. – Rappler.com