Manila, Philippines – Two Chinese military transport planes have been photographed on Panganiban Reef, marking the first reported presence of this type of aircraft in Philippine territory in the South China Sea and raising the prospect that China will base warplanes there.
Panganiban Reef — internationally known as Mischief Reef — is located within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea. The waters within this zone are known locally as West Philippine Sea.
Surveillance images taken on Jan. 6 showed two Xian Y-7 military transport planes 20 to 50 meters apart on the ramp near Runway 21 on Panganiban, one of seven reefs in the Spratlys that China has transformed into artificial islands with military capabilities.
The photos were given to the Inquirer by a source.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines declined to comment on the images. The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Inquirer checked the photos for modifications, but there appeared to be none.
It was unclear if it was the first ever presence of military aircraft on Panganiban Reef.
It could not also be determined how long the planes had been there.
Aerial photos of the reef dated Dec. 30, 2017, published by the Inquirer on Feb. 5, 2018, indicated no presence of airplanes.
China landed a civilian aircraft on Panganiban Reef on July 13, 2016, a day after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in a case brought by the Philippines and declared Beijing’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea invalid.
It was as if China, which did not take part in the arbitration, was telling the court that it did not recognize its ruling.
Besides Panganiban, China has also transformed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs into artificial islands.
A Chinese military aircraft landed on Kagitingan in 2016 reportedly to evacuate three ill workers to Hainan Island for treatment.
There has been no confirmed presence of military planes on Zamora so far. Three of China’s artificial islands in the Spratlys have 3-kilometer runways.
The Hague court’s 2016 ruling says Panganiban Reef belongs to the Philippines.
Part of the ruling says the reef, located about 232 km from Palawan, forms part of the Philippines’ EEZ and continental shelf, and China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights with its island-building in the area.
But China has refused to acknowledge the verdict and continues to insist it has sovereignty over almost the entire 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by vital sea-lanes through which $5 trillion in global commerce passes every year and where islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast energy reserves.
China to up the ante
“If they could land transports now, in the future they might want to land more provocative and destabilizing types of assets such as fighter jets and bombers. And over time, such consistent but creeping practice would become a fact, in effect dealing a fait accompli to Manila, should it choose to stay silent or downplay the issue, and it could become ‘routinized’ or ‘normalized’ operations for China,” Collin Koh, a research fellow at Singapore’s Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Maritime Security Program, told the Inquirer.
The Duterte administration has repeatedly played down the militarization of China in the South China Sea and if it continues to do so, “this could embolden Beijing to up the ante in the future,” Koh said.
“There must be certain calculations within the Chinese political elite circles that Manila is in Beijing’s pocket, because of President Duterte’s desire for rapprochement and quest for Chinese aid and investments, which thus conclude that they could possibly get away with further acts of militarization,” he said.
“There’s always also a concern about the American factor in the back of their minds, but they could have assessed that so long as the Duterte administration chooses to downplay these developments, there’s also nothing much the Americans can do,” he added.
The landing of military transport planes on Panganiban Reef, he said, is an “interesting revelation,” and if the Philippine government has been aware of the presence of the military planes but refuses to raise it in public only highlights the administration’s desire to “not rock the boat with China” despite the ongoing talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Tensions between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea eased when President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in 2016, put the Philippine victory in The Hague on the back burner, and began to court Beijing for aid and investment.
Last week, the President returned home from his third visit to China with $9.5 billion in investment and aid pledges from the Chinese government.
The Philippine President and Chinese President Xi Jinping also held talks for a possible joint exploration for oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea.
The President said he did not take up the South China Sea dispute during his meeting with Xi because he believed it was “not the appropriate time.”
“Why should I ruin it? They are now offering joint exploration and from the mouth of the president of China, he said, then exploration, maybe we can be extra generous … I am not ready to sacrifice the lives of my policemen and soldiers for nothing. I’d rather talk about business. Let it float there, it cannot be stolen. But China is coming in, offering something,” he told reporters in Davao City early on Friday after arriving from China.
‘No giving up of claims’
Despite criticisms of the administration’s defeatist attitude toward China, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano insists the Philippines has not given up its claims in the South China Sea.
“[T]he prosperity of the Filipinos coming from China is not because we gave up sovereignty but because how we are dealing with issues of territorial claims and sovereignty. China has not asked us, and I can tell you this very honestly whether closed door or in open, they have never asked us to give up our claims. They have simply asked us to put some order in how we will discuss these claims and where we should discuss these claims,” Cayetano told journalists last week in Hong Kong, where the Philippine delegation proceeded after the Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan Island.
Cayetano said earlier that the Duterte administration held China to its “good faith” promise not to reclaim new features in the South China Sea.
“As of now, if we compare the Aquino administration strategy and the Duterte strategy, we simply are making do with a bad situation but we have stopped the bleeding. Meaning, we have stopped other claimants from getting new features, we have started discussion on the [code of conduct], we have jump-started relationship: people to people; cultural exchanges; educational exchanges; military to military. Yes we want to fight for what is ours but we don’t want a war. And no one in our region wants a war because no one will win,” he said.
Slow step of operations
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the presence of the planes on Panganiban Reef showed China had continuous operations in the area.
“This means they’re going there both by air and sea. It indicates full reach of their operations,” Batongbacal said in an interview.
This means, he said, the deployment of the cargo planes is just “another slow step” in their operations: “They will make it appear that it’s not threatening. They started out with cargo planes first, and they would say these are normal operations. We know they would do that eventually and it’s evident on their timetable.”
What should be watched out for, Batongbacal said, is the presence of fighter jets or bombers.
“If this happens, it means they are expanding their operations in their bases. Eventually this will be more frequent until it becomes permanent. Right now, [the transport planes are] either for construction people or military who operate the facilities. Maybe they’re part of the rotation,” he said.
Tense and busy week
It was a tense and busy week in the South China Sea last week with demonstrations of power by both China and the United States.
Xi presided over the largest maritime parade in the disputed waters on Thursday, with the participation of least 10,000 personnel, dozens of fighter jets, submarines, ships and aircraft, to show off China’s naval might.
The US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Manila last Wednesday for a port visit. Before its stopover, it showed off its capabilities with flight deck operations in the South China Sea. It hosted a reception for Philippine government officials, military and business leaders on Friday night.
The United States, which has no claims in the South China Sea, has no official position in the disputes but has repeatedly asserted its right to freedom of navigation.
The Wall Street Journal last week reported that China had also started deploying communications and radar jamming equipment on Panganiban and Kagitingan, spurring suspicions that Beijing would use its bases on the two artificial islands to enforce its claims in the South China Sea.
Discovered by accident
Panganiban is within the Philippines’ EEZ but China has occupied it for decades. Before its transformation into the largest of the seven artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, it was a small outpost that China claimed in the 1990s as a shelter for its fishermen.
“It was discovered by accident when I was national security adviser. A [Filipino] fisherman who escaped [from Chinese detention] told us about it,” Jose Almonte, who was national security adviser to President Fidel Ramos when China seized Panganiban Reef in 1995, told the Inquirer in an interview.
“They’ve been constructing for years. They’ve been there since early ’90s,” he said.
The Philippines rallied Asean for support in trying to shoo China away, but the economic dependence of some members of the bloc on China had stood in the way of unity within the grouping.
China started massive dredging operations on the seven reefs in the Spratlys in early 2014 in anticipation of an adverse ruling from the Hague court. In 2015, Xi said during his trip to Washington that China wouldn’t militarize the artificial islands.
‘Barangay of China’
For the Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in the region, war is not an option. It doesn’t have to be, according to Almonte.
The Philippines, Almonte said, could mobilize world opinion, as “China, who wants to be a superpower, is sensitive to world opinion.”
“We should continue to uphold the decision of [the Hague court]. Of course, we can’t implement it because we have no armed forces. Even the [United Nations] can’t implement it. And America will not implement it even if they can. So we should campaign for world opinion,” he said.
“Here, America will help us because we are not creating conditions for them to go to war with China. If we want to campaign in the world, they will be with us,” he added.
“I’ve said this before in my speeches. There are only two forces that can solve the South China Sea dispute: China and world opinion,” he said.
But China will never do it and it is even willing to violate international law for its ambitious claims, he said.
“We have won in The Hague but they disregarded it. Duterte allowed them to go with it so you remove China,” he said.
Almonte also warned that too much cozying up to China could have its consequences, citing the struggle of Sri Lanka to repay its massive loans to China. It was forced to lease one of its ports to China for 99 years to be able to pay its huge debt, he said.
“If we do not manage properly the so-called opportunities provided by China in terms of loans, grants, we will become a barangay (village) of China,” he said.
Almonte described the South China Sea as the “maritime heartland of Southeast Asia.”
“Anybody who controls [the South China Sea] will control the peripheral countries. Anyone who controls the peripheral countries will control the Southeast Asia region. Who controls the Southeast Asia region will [have] influence in [the] Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific [regions],” he said.