MANILA, Philippines - China is carrying out land reclamation operations in not just one but a total of five areas in the disputed Spratly Islands well within the Philippine maritime zone.
A confidential Malacañang report detailed the land reclamation activities of China in five areas, namely Johnson South (Mabini) Reef, Cuarteron (Calderon) Reef, Hughes (Kennan) Reef, Gaven (Burgos) Reef and Eldad (Malvar) Reef.
The report noted China has focused its land reclamation operations in areas farther from the Philippine mainland.
No such activities were monitored at three other areas, namely Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reef, Subi (Zamora) Reef and Mischief (Panganiban) Reef, where China had built military garrisons and communications facilities.
But the report does not rule out the possibility of China doing land reclamation activities in these three areas once the work is done in the first five reefs.
The assessment by both local and international observers is that the expansion of China’s existing garrisons in these areas is part of Beijing’s ongoing efforts to impose its supremacy over the area.
The Philippine government revealed in March that China was carrying out land reclamation activities in Mabini Reef, part of the Kalayaan Island Group.
The Department of Foreign Affairs released photographs showing how the small Chinese garrison was expanded to almost nine hectares in just two years.
There were speculations that China would build an airstrip in Mabini Reef and, once operational, Beijing can enforce its controversial Air Defense Interdiction Zone (ADIZ) in the region.
Apparently, China was busy carrying out reclamation work in four more areas, namely Cuarteron Reef, Hughes Reef, Gaven Reef and Eldad Reef.
Senior government officials confirmed to TV5 the Chinese activities, pointing out recent surveillance flights over the area confirmed the presence of dredging and “material displacement” ships.
President Aquino has seen the surveillance photos, which were taken in March and April this year, and was reportedly surprised at the extent of China’s activities.
The same Malacañang report estimates Beijing will likely start land reclamation work at Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef first.
China has built a formidable garrison at Fiery Cross Reef, where some 200 troops are stationed and which contains air and surface search radars as well as satellite data transmission facilities.
The Fiery Cross garrison also has helicopter landing pads and a wharf. The garrison is heavily armed with naval guns and is considered China’s main headquarters within the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group.
The Chinese garrison in Subi Reef also has around 200 troops stationed as well as helicopter landing pads.
Officials noted, however, that China may hold off any activity at Mischief Reef due to its proximity to the Philippines. They said Beijing expects Manila to adopt a more aggressive diplomatic stance and attract more international attention should there be any land reclamation activity at Mischief Reef.
The Philippines and China already had several clashes over Mischief Reef. From several octagonal structures on stilts, China now has at least four building complexes in Mischief Reef and over a hundred soldiers guarding the communications facilities, docks and landing pad.
The geopolitical analysis website Stratfor pointed out China is using the strategy of oil exploration activities and land reclamation activities to enforce its claim over the disputed Spratlys and Paracel Islands.
In its recent paper on rising tensions between China and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands, Stratfor pointed out Beijing’s use of oil exploration activities was one example of its firming up claims and gradually eroding other claimants’ ability to challenge its supremacy.
Stratfor says Beijing will continue to push its boundaries using this strategy, as it still has to build up its navy’s logistical capability.
“China’s navy is not good enough to overcome the logistical challenges such distances present, so its ability to project its dominance throughout the maritime sphere is limited,” Stratfor said.
Stratfor added Beijing will continue with its three-step strategy, namely using the nine-dash line as a historical justification for its continued operations in disputed waters.
China is also expected to enforce its claim in “tactically advantageous areas where it has an actual presence,” such as the Paracels and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal near the Philippines.
Stratfor added China would continue to develop its military and technological capability to carefully push its maritime boundaries farther “without antagonizing all of its neighbors at once.”
‘Thousand year-old friendship’
Despite these recent developments, Aquino and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua exchanged conciliatory statements and both stressed the territorial disputes do not define the “thousand-year-old friendship” of Manila and Beijing.
Officials showed to TV5 the surveillance photos taken at Gaven Reef, Cuarteron Reef and Keenan Reef.
At Gaven Reef, three dredgers and an ocean tug were seen. One of the dredgers, identified as Tian Jing Hao, has deployed a long hose to suck up seabed material and redistribute this in the reclaimed area.
Another dredger, the Nina Hai Tuo, can also be seen working in another area of Gaven Reef.
China had built a troop and supply garrison at Gaven Reef as far back as 2003.
The garrison has several gun emplacements, including a large bore naval gun. It also had a platform where supply ships can dock.
Officials said the reclamation operations at Gaven Reef are expected to last a month or more, “barring any environmental setbacks.”
At Hughes Reef, a lone dredger can be seen and a sizable area has already been reclaimed. Construction equipment can be seen in the reclaimed area.
China had built a permanent reef fortress and supply platform, which also have several gun emplacements and a helicopter-landing pad.
At Cuarteron Reef, a dredger equipped with a long black hose can be seen spreading seabed material over a wide area.
The reclamation work is being done near the Chinese garrison which has been refurbished into a permanent reef fortress with radar and communications equipment.
At Eldad Reef, a ship can be seen anchored off the reef and a backhoe can be seen moving seabed materials.
Philippine government officials estimate that reclamation activities at Calderon and Eldad reefs will last a month.
At Johnson Reef, the reclamation work was completed last March.
The reclaimed area is estimated to be around 90,000 square meters and the perimeter has been secured to prevent erosion.
Located in one corner of the reclaimed area is a Chinese garrison, which also serves as communications and radar facilities and is equipped with naval guns. A helicopter-landing pad was built in the garrison as well as a small dock.
In their respective speeches Tuesday before the Federation of Filipino Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry on the occasion of Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day, Aquino and Zhao expressed confidence that the disputes can be settled.
Zhao described the Philippines-China territorial disputes as “temporary… compared with our thousand-year-old friendship and extensive cooperation.”
“China always attached great importance to its relationship with the Philippines, and I believe that we have the wisdom, the patience and the courage to settle the disputes through negotiations and consultations. I am fully confident about the future of China-Philippines relations,” Zhao stressed.