AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. visits Pagasa Island. (photo by Krisken Jones, InterAksyon.com)
Fewer than 48 kilometers away, China’s giant construction cranes glint on the horizon, a sign of the Asian giant’s reef-building frenzy in the disputed Spratly chain that has seen new islands appear seemingly overnight.
As China and fellow rival claimant Vietnam race to pave over reefs and build structures in the strategically important sea, the Philippines stands out as a laggard.
The 356 residents of the remote Manila-held coral outcrop they will soon be forced out by
aggressive land grab, in a conflict fought, so far, with dredgers and cement. China
"Before we landed we saw the reclamation in the (nearby) Subi Reef and it's really enormous," Catapang said on a tour of the island's largely decrepit facilities. An old navy transport ship lay half-submerged in waters off the coast, with two anti-aircraft guns the only visible defenses.
The Spratlys, an archipelago of more than a hundred islands, reefs and atolls between
and the ,
is one of the most hotly contested areas because of its strategic military
last week sounded the alarm, accusing of building up to 800
hectares of artificial islands in the Spratlys, and warning it could construct
airfields, surveillance systems and harbors that would jeopardize regional
Alarmed at the Chinese activity, other Spratlys claimants have not been idle.
is reported to be reclaiming land in two areas, while Taiwan and have announced plans to
improve their naval facilities. Malaysia
which occupies nine islands or reefs in the chain, in contrast has done very
little - partly because of funding constraints, but also because it is pinning
its hopes on having the United Nations mediate the dispute. Philippines
'Without firing a shot'
Life is usually uneventful for the inhabitants of Pagasa, the largest Philippine-occupied island which lies 433 kilometers from
Palawan, and receives electricity just five hours a day.
They include soldiers, coastguard personnel and military-employed civilians, many of whom bring their wives and children with them to stave off loneliness.
But the Philippine army says that since last month Chinese vessels off the Subi reef have warned Filipino air force planes flying in and out of Pagasa to leave, saying they are violating its military airspace.
"This is bad for us who live here. We depend on the planes to deliver our food," one concerned municipal employee, 37-year-old Larry Jugo, told Agence France-Presse.
Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Western Command, to which forces in the
South China Sea
belong, said the action was effectively an enforcement of an undeclared air
defense identification zone.
"They build these things, they say for legal reasons, but for military purposes as necessary. That's very alarming," he said.
Elsewhere in the Spratlys, Lopez said
been harassing Filipino vessels supplying marines on Second Thomas Shoal. The
puny unit of nine men lives on a rusting navy ship that had been deliberately
grounded on a reef. China
Authorities and regional analysts see it as a powerful campaign aimed at making it impossible for the
to hold on to its
"As far as I know, there is not much that the
do," even if it wins its UN case, said Harry Sa, an American research
analyst for the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Philippines
is doing something smart: It
is gaining territory without firing a single shot." China
'We have nowhere to run'
military might, the Philippines’
strongest card has been a suit to a United Nations tribunal, asking it to rule
claims are illegal. China
A verdict is expected next year, but
has refused to participate and would
reject any finding against it. Beijing
Analysts say China is unlikely to deliberately fire at Filipino vessels, wary the Philippines could ask the United States to retaliate by invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, and also reluctant to be seen as a regional aggressor.
Nonetheless, the Philippines has sought to upgrade its capabilities by acquiring two second-hand US patrol craft and ordering fighter jets from South Korea that would allow it to maneuver more swiftly over the contested waters.
But its efforts to draw in the
, its closest ally and
former colonial ruler, have stumbled, mainly because a 2014 treaty to allow
American forces to use Filipino bases and build facilities is in legal limbo. United States
becoming increasingly vulnerable, Pagasa islander Jugo plans to send his wife
and two children home to Palawan next year
just in case trouble erupts.
"We have nowhere to run ... we will be forced to fight whatever happens," he said.