MANILA- China's installation of missiles in the Spratly islands is an "escalation" of the dispute in the South China Sea, a maritime expert said Tuesday.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said China can now take "full control" of the air and sea space around Spratlys with its missiles.
"I feel that it's really an escalation of the situation because this is the first time that we're seeing these kinds of long-range missiles being placed on these islands," he told ANC's "Beyond Politics."
"They're so strategically placed that they could literally strangle anyone that depends on the South China Sea for their maritime trade," he added.
China has built several artificial islands in the South China Sea and equipped them with runways, missile systems, and communication facilities.
Last week, Beijing confirmed that it has installed missiles in the Spratly islands but claimed that the move "targets no one."
The Chinese army installed anti-ship and air-to-air defenses on outposts also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
The new Chinese missiles were reportedly deployed on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, which are all in the Spratlys archipelago located in waters south of mainland China between Vietnam and the Philippines.
"They basically are now capable of taking full of control of the airspace and sea space around the Spratlys region because of these missiles there," Batongbacal said.
Malacañang last week said it was concerned with Beijing's recent deployment of missiles but expressed confidence that "those missiles are not directed at us."
"It's not a matter of whether it's pointed at you, it's whether they are capable of doing so," Batongbacal said.
"This time, what we're seeing is not just sand being piled on top of the reef nor is it just buildings. These are actual weapon systems that are going in the reefs now," he added.
COULD CHINA HAVE BEEN STOPPED?
Asked whether the Philippines could have prevented China from militarizing the South China Sea, Batongbacal said diplomatic pressure might have slowed Beijing down.
"At the very least I think it would have been possible to slow them down and it might have been possible to prevent them from doing so if there was enough diplomatic pressure if the region had achieved some kind of unity against the full militarization of these islands," he said.
Batongbacal explained that the Philippines should have exerted "maximum effort" right after the landmark July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that validated Manila's maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.
"You really have a very brief window of opportunity when you had the maximum leverage available from the arbitration, from the support of the international community, from the interest of the region," he said.
China has ignored the said ruling that invalidated its nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the South China Sea.
"Over the long term, it becomes more difficult now to negotiate an equitable solution to these disputes because how will you negotiate from this kind of position when the islands in dispute are already armed to the tiff?" Batongbacal said.