Security plan to ensure access to hydrocarbon reserves in disputed sea
MANILA - The Philippine military has drawn up a 4-year plan to beef up its security fence in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) to deter China from occupying more features, including those in the energy resource-rich areas in the disputed sea, a senior military official told Kyodo News on Tuesday.
The move is to protect the Philippines' "national interests" in the wake of China's "increasing poaching activities within the Philippines' exclusive economic zones, harassment of Filipino fishermen and increased presence of Chinese vessels and aircraft in the disputed sea," according to an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"We need to ensure access to these oil-and gas-rich areas which are within our territory," the official said, referring to the three potential hydrocarbon reserves of northwest Palawan, southwest Palawan and Reed Bank in the South China Sea.
The increasing presence of China's warships and maritime surveillance ships in the contested sea have stalled Manila's plans to start offshore oil and natural gas drilling activities off Palawan, an island province facing the South China Sea where these fields are located.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino, whose presidential term ends in 2016, has been attempting to explore these areas during his watch to raise money to fund his programs to alleviate poverty.
"(The plan includes) beefing up the forces of military's western command in occupied islands while increasing the presence of northern command units in (Bajo de Masinloc)," the official said, referring to Scarborough Shoal which China occupied in 2012.
"It is highly evident now that the recent incidents are already on the east of the Mischief Reef (which China occupied in 1995 and fortified into a naval base). This shows that the foreign intrusions are closer to our shorelines, which increase the threat level to our country," according to a classified assessment paper seen by Kyodo News.
"There is an actual threat," said a military officer, citing the "active presence of Chinese ships, including frigates, around the Second Thomas Shoal."
'CHINA WANTS REED BANK'
The sustained presence of Chinese ships around the shoal indicates Beijing's intention to gain military control of Reed Bank, about 85 nautical miles from Palawan Island.
"China will occupy Reed Bank," the officer said. "It is highly possible that China is determined to assert its claim politically and militarily."
Citing China's strategy, the official said it also plans to occupy Sabina Shoal, Amy Douglas Shoal and Boxall Reef, which the Philippines considers part of its exclusive economic zone. "Occupying these shoals and reef is vital in creeping towards Reed Bank."
"Occupation of Boxall Reef will restrict our activities in Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) and could put pressure for us to abandon that shoal," he said.
"To address this situation," the paper says, "our current efforts are geared towards the forward deployment of two patrol vessels and two reconnaissance air assets at Pag-Asa Island (Thitu Island).
Thitu Island is the seat of government of Kalayaan, a town of about 95 islands, cays, shoals and reefs that the Philippines claims in the disputed Spratly Archipelago. It is the Philippine military's main outpost in the chain of islands, shoals, atolls and cays being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.
The Philippine military also plans to develop and deploy "a patrol vessel each at Lawak Island (Nanshan Island) and Rizal Reef (Commodore Reef) detachment to protect the gas and oil exploration in the Reed Bank and nearby fields."
KALAYAAN TASK FORCE
"(There is a need to) beef-up forces at the Philippine-held islands and the activation of a Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) joint task force utilizing a marine brigade of troops," says the paper.
The KIG is a group of over 50 features and their surrounding waters that belong to the Philippines.
The military also plans to repair the airstrip on Thitu Island and the construction of a pier to accommodate its air and naval assets.
"With the projected gas exploration at Reed Bank, we need to develop Nanshan Island being the closest to it. There is a need to build a pier and helipad in that area and improve the buildings to bolster our security on this island," says the paper.
"There is a need to improve the naval support facilities at naval stations Carlito Cunanan, Narciso del Rosario and Balabac to boost our defense capabilities at the backdoor."
"Rehabilitation of Tarumpitao airstrip is also vital in support of our operations in the South China Sea...This air strip was formerly the Loran Station of the U.S. forces and at present it is occupied by the Philippine air force," the paper says. "We also need the repair of Samariniana airstrip for joint combined operations."
"We need to achieve a good satellite communications, radar monitoring system with full command and control and coast watch stations to all (nine) Philippine-held Nanshan Island, Thitu Island and Commodore Reef by the end of this year," it says.
"Parola (Lankiam Cay) will be the second in order of priority being in the northernmost part of the KIG. Likas (West York Island) will be on 2016, while Patag (Flat Island), Panata (Northeast Cay) and Kota (Loaita Island) will be on 2018."
There is a need to launch a "sustained information strategy," the paper says. "We need to initiate and information strategy that will mainstream and raise awareness in order to gain publicity and generate more supporters globally."
The Philippine military, one of the weakest in Asia, hopes that the "ironclad" security cloak provided for under the Philippines-U.S. Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed ahead of President Barack Obama's April 28-29 visit to Manila will help boost its maritime defense capabilities.