Thu. Dec 1st, 2022


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South China Sea: ‘Beijing militia’ watched Philippines build major island refurbishment

4 min read

South China Sea: Military exercises ‘must continue’ says expert

Anger between the two nations has dominated discussion in the waters, with China reportedly behind a major downturn in fishing fortunes for the likes of nearby nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam. This row has deepened in recent months after the US attacked Beijing for its “unlawful” moves to stop its neighbours from fishing in some areas of the highly lucrative South China Sea. It has led to fears of conflict between China and island countries, as well as the US, with many involved bulking up their military capabilities in the region.

But China reportedly sent militia to the region of Thitu Island in order to see what work the Philippines had been carrying out, despite pleas that the renovation project was “non-military”.

Thitu Island, also known as Pag-asa, is among nine islands surrounding the contested Spratly Islands, and is home to a small community, with a school and military barracks on site.

Philippine defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana explained a “significant” ramp system was installed to “bring in more materials, equipment to continuously repair and then later on to maintain our airstrip”.

He explained that ahead of its installation, “when you brought in equipment here or anything – food or whatever – you had to anchor about 500 metres away and transfer the goods into a small boat”.

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This new method would help change the old “tedious and expensive process”, and was the “first necessary step” to bring new construction equipment on to the island.

But China was unsure of the Philippines’ plans, and militia dressed up as locals were reportedly witnessed nearby.

Mr Lorenzana said in June the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, was “managing the issue between” China and Manila well, but tensions remained.

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When discussing China’s presence in the region, Mr Lorenzana added: “The Chinese said they will not attack us, so we are safe here.

“The purpose of this is just to develop this area into a viable community.”

He also claimed that Chinese troops were disguised as fishermen, adding: “We cannot influence their actions.

“If their militia is there… as long as they don’t molest our fishermen, they can stay there.”

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Yet, this move is the latest in a long line of tensions between the Philippines, the US and China.

Earlier this year, Manila lashed out at Beijing after it created two new districts to administer islands in the South China Sea.

It also chose to keep a military pact with the US, which enraged China.

The beaching ramp is the first of four phases of a project to build a “Basing Support System” for the Filipino military on the island.

China has also angered the likes of Taiwan as the battle for supremacy in the South China Sea continues.

Most recently, an aircraft carrier group sailed through the Taiwan Strait, after Taiwan moved its forces to monitor the convey.

This, Taiwan said, was just one in a line of daily incursions into its airspace by the Chinese armed forces in recent months.

China’s officials said in a statement that the operations were “normal arrangements made in accordance with annual plans”.

Beijing also confirmed troops will “continue to organise similar operations based on training needs”.

As tensions rise, experts – such as Professor Oriana Skylar Mastro, from Georgetown University – raised their own concerns over conflict as military power is beefed up.

She told the Council of Foreign Relations this year: “I think there are some factors that show if China cannot achieve its goals, de facto control of the South China waters, it could escalate.

“The US could act more assertively, leading to aggression on the part of China.

“It’s possible that China will come to the conclusion that the diplomatic way of dealing with the situation isn’t working.

“Couple that with new power projection capabilities, military power for the first time… lastly, you could see China taking military action, such as seizing islands of kinetic action against US vessels in the South China Sea waters.”

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