Philippine president Duterte's pivot to China a 'game changer': Official

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte greets Philippine Vice-President Leni Robredo at Clark Air Base on July 4, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines is set on maintaining "good neighbourly relations" with Beijing, even as experts warn that China may start building in three years an island fortress just off the main Philippine island of Luzon.

In a statement marking the first year since an arbitration tribunal dismissed China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano said on Wednesday (July 12) the Philippines "shall remain an enemy to none and a friend to all".

He described President Rodrigo Duterte's foreign policy, marked by a pivot to China, as a "game changer".

An arbitral tribunal in The Hague on July 12 last year handed the Philippines a sweeping victory in a case it filed challenging China's expansive claims to the South China Sea. But the ruling was gradually set aside by Manila as Mr Duterte wooed China.

Mr Cayetano said the Philippines has since regained access to fishing grounds around the disputed Scarborough Shoal, and received from China over US$30 billion (S$41 billion) in investment pledges and thousands of firearms to fight terrorists. He added that warming ties with China had allowed Asean to revive long-stalled talks on a "code of conduct" meant to avoid conflicts in the South China Sea.

But former national security adviser Roilo Golez warned that the Philippines' acquiescence was encouraging China to push through with plans to transform Scarborough Shoal, 230km west of the Philippines' coastline, into a "huge military complex" disguised as a fishing sanctuary and tourist spot.

He said this could happen in three years, when China's second aircraft carrier was scheduled to go into service, and when the islands China had built over three reefs in the Spratly island chain - Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi - would begin functioning as military bases.

But Mr Jose Antonio Custodio, a defence analyst and military historian, said three years might be optimistic; he did not expect a Chinese carrier group to become effective for at least five years.

China seized Scarborough from the Philippines following a two-month military stand-off in 2012. The outcrop saw skirmishes between the Chinese Coast Guard and Filipino fishermen who consider waters around it as their traditional fishing grounds.

But with Mr Duterte's pivot, China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around Scarborough since late last year.

In March, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said China was already set to build on Scarborough last year, but the United States was able to stop the works.

The Obama administration considered reclamation at Scarborough as a red line; a base there would allow China to encroach into a second island chain closer to US military bases in Guam and Hawaii.

Some analysts said a fortification on Scarborough - along with island bases in the Paracels near Vietnam and the Spratlys - would also complete a "triangle" that would allow China to exercise full control over two-thirds of the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, a senior military planner said it was possible the US might allow China to build on Scarborough, as the strategic value of having island bases in the South China Sea might have been overstated.

He said: "In case of a conflict, the US knows it can easily overrun or destroy those bases. I don't know what thinking went into having military bases in the middle of the ocean that satellites can easily see."

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