The U.S. and its regional allies have become increasingly concerned by Chinese land reclamation programs in the disputed ocean.
As China becomes increasingly assertive, challenging U.S. hegemony in the region, one area of particular concern is a series of new artificial islands that Beijing has built in the South China Sea. Now the Philippines Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has drawn attention to the matter, according to Inquirer.net.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea rumble on
There are a number of rival claimants to parts of the South China Sea, including Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Carpio believes that the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China should become an issue in the 2016 national elections because Beijing is working on “a triangle of military bases” in the area.
Carpio is referring to a new base at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in waters off Zambales province, which he said was to be used to protect the Bashi Channel. China wants to maintain access to the channel, through which it sends naval operations between Hainan and Taiwan.
During his speech at the Rotary Club of Manila in Makati City, Carpio told attendees of his belief that China has a “long-term grand design” to reinforce its territorial claims in the region. “They have their nuclear submarines stationed on the island (Hainan),” he said, emphasizing how the base would be used to protect the Bashi Channel.
China planning long-term domination of the region
Carpio later addressed China’s long-range capabilities, with weapons delivered by strategic bombers or missiles. “The range of those missiles is 7,500 kilometers,” Carpio said. “All the US military facilities [in the region] are within the range of those missiles.”
He went on to explain how China was attempting to build a string of command centers for its planned Maritime Silk Road, a hugely ambitious economic initiative which aims to promote trade and cooperation across the old Silk Road route. Carpio pointed out that China has turned Zamora Reef (Subi Reef) into a massive airbase, just 29 kilometers southwest of Philippine-claimed Pagasa Island (Thitus Island) in the Spratlys.
Zamora Reef is now a 150 hectare artificial island with a naval base and airstrip, a fact that does not sit easily with Carpio. “This is in the high seas. China is converting it into a military base, naval base with a 3-kilometer [airstrip]. It can take in any military aircraft,” he said.
Potential new base could threaten Filipino supply routes
In addition Beijing has reclaimed around 560 hectares of the 800 hectare Panganiban Reef. The fear for Carpio is that once China builds a base on Panganiban, it will be able to throttle Filipino supplies to the other Spratly islands that it claims.
Carpio later bemoaned the environmental impact of Chinese land reclamation programs, and the damage to corals that are 30 million years old. “China destroyed them [in just] a year… It is unimaginable,” he said. “Should we allow China to rob us and deprive us of what international laws guarantee us?” he asked.
China claims almost the entirety of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, a move that the Philippines has contested in a United Nations arbitration court. Beijing has so far refused to participate in the arbitration, and claimed that it will not accept any ruling.
A growing political issue in Asia
According to Carpio, the issue should be part of the Filipino national elections. “Our candidates should [state] their positions on the matter. It is very important because what is at stake is 80 percent of the exclusive economic zone and 100 percent of our continental shelf,” he said.
Members of the ASEAN regional grouping came under pressure from China and its allies not to discuss the issue at the organization’s last summit in Malaysia. The organization prides itself on maintaining consensus, but the South China Sea is such a divisive issue that members struggled to come up with a traditional joint statement.
Alongside the Philippines, Vietnam has been an outspoken critic of China’s actions in the region. Both countries stand to be considerably weakened should China successfully claim the whole of the South China Sea.
The competing territorial claims are overlapping and complicated by the fact that Taiwan stakes a claim separate to that of China. Legally it is not clear whether their claims should be joint or separate.
With China refusing to take part in international adjudication, options are running out. The United States has attempted to exert its influence in the region, but it would be a risky decision to push China too far over an issue in its backyard.