China may soon develop bases in Scarborough Shoal and deploy fighter jets to other military facilities it constructed in the South China Sea, a maritime expert said Friday.
"The Chinese have built the bunkers, the shelters, the radar and signalling systems, intelligence facilities so it's a matter of when they would decide to send in fighter aircraft, not if. It will be beyond naive to think they're not going to do it. They did not build all of this so they can leave it empty," Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said in an interview on ANC's Early Edition.
Despite overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, Beijing built several man-made islands capable of housing soldiers and military equipment in the strategic waterway where $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Last year, some Southeast Asian nations and China held joint naval drills in the contested waters that somehow eased tensions in the area.
But Poling said military exercises in the South China Sea may pave the way for the Chinese jets to take flight over the disputed area.
"I think they'll start small. They'll send a few aircraft for exercises and then there will be bigger groups and then they'll rotate. Before long, we all have gotten used to the idea that there are Chinese fighter jets in the Spratlys," he said.
Chinese construction in Scarborough Shoal may also happen "sooner or later," Poling said.
"They haven't hidden the fact that they want a base in Scarborough sooner or later. It might not be a big reclaimed island like what we've seen in Mischief [Reef] and Subi. It might be a smaller facility that's less damaging. A lot of it would depend on the relationship between Beijing and Manila," he said.
Ties between China and the Philippines improved in 2016 after President Rodrigo Duterte turned away from Manila's traditional ally Washington as then-US President Barack Obama criticized his bloody war on drugs.
The Duterte administration has also not been keen in mentioning the Philippines' arbitral win against China in key documents and in diplomatic summits where Chinese officials were present.
"I think the Palace is betting on good faith. They are assuming that if they don't complain about anything, no matter what the Chinese do, if they don't complain, then Beijing will reward the Philippines with a code of conduct that will be legally binding and billions of dollars of investment," Poling said.
"Part of the government is being naive about dealing with China and it's understandable because the alternative would be going through years and years of more tensions," he added.
Last year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea.
The meeting is expected to begin in March in Vietnam.