Editorial Notes

Why is Manila neglecting the Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys?: Inquirer

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

In its editorial, the paper draws attention to the decaying state of the Philippine-held islands in the disputed Spratly waters and calls for remedial measures.

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - President Duterte has a standard response to critics who point out that despite the government's deferential stance toward China, it has virtually taken over several reefs and islets within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, blithely putting up massive military bases, and even surface-to-air missile systems (SAMS) on three Philippine reefs - Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Zamora (Subi) and Panganiban (Mischief).

But those islands and reefs have been there all this time, Mr Duterte would protest.

Why blame him for China's transgressions in unprotected territory when past administrations had failed to do something to protect them, he would add.

He may have a point.

Territorial dispute with our Asian neighbours over the Spratly and the Kalayaan islands has vexed past administrations as far back as the '60s, but nothing much had been done to fortify our claim and protect our stakes.

At least not until the Aquino administration filed a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague questioning China's conflicting claim in the West Philippine Sea.

On July 12, 2016, the UN-backed tribunal ruled that China's claim was invalid.

But other than this appeal, the country has lagged behind its neighbours in establishing a strong military presence in the heavily contested waterway that would have discouraged interlopers.

According to the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Vietnam has the most number of outposts in the Spratlys, with at least 49 spread across 27 islands, while Malaysia occupies five islands. Taiwan has one island, and the Philippines, nine.

But the Philippine-held islands are in a sorry state.

Pagasa's 1.3-kilometer airstrip has become risky for landing big military planes due to its short runway.

The runway also becomes too soft for planes to land on whenever it rains, such that pilots have to wait for it to dry for at least three days before they can use it again.

Meanwhile, our outpost in the Spratlys has single-story buildings, storage tanks, solar panels and facilities in need of long overdue major improvements.

At Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, the rusting World War II hospital ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, serves to mark the country's boundary in the Spratlys.

In contrast, most of Vietnam's outposts in the Spratlys have gun emplacements, dish antennas, turbines, artillery, piers, light posts, bunkers and solar panels.

Malaysia has built a luxury diving resort next to a naval base on one of its claimed islands.

Taiwan's Itu Aba has gun emplacements, a concrete runway and solar panels.

Securing our islands, it seems, is not a priority of this administration.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told Filipino reporters in Hong Kong last month: "We'd rather spend our money on education or health … what good is it to have the best military if your people are starving, if your people don't have jobs … So our priority really is building our economy and keeping our people safe."

Cayetano may have overlooked reports that Filipino fishermen were being harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard at Bajo de Masinloc, with the vessels closing in on them and cutting loose the anchor of their boats.

Intimidated, local fishermen have chosen to fish closer to shore even if that means a leaner catch.

The foreign secretary might have forgotten as well how valuable the West Philippine Sea is, being crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes through which US$5 trillion (S$ trillion) in global trade passes annually.

Meanwhile islets, reefs and atolls in the Spratly archipelago are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.

With Chinese vessels closely watching and patrolling the area, are these resources now off-limits to Filipinos?

Speaking of security, Cayetano also seems oblivious to the fact that having SAMS would allow China to throw an air defence network over the islands and a sizeable swath of the West Philippine Sea.

Having a sophisticated military base in the area also gives China a vantage point from which to monitor its neighbours and improve its intelligence gathering.

But not to worry, President Duterte has repeatedly assured doubters that China is our friend and has promised to protect us.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has his own reassuring words: "… the missiles are not directed at us."

Such naïveté and defeatist attitude over China's bullying tactics do not sit well with the President's critics who describe as "a wasted opportunity" his lack of resolve to press our claim when the favourable arbitral ruling came out.

He has blamed past presidents for doing nothing in the face of China's aggressive military buildup.

From all indications, history is bound to judge him as harshly.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media.