Undisclosed sources, most likely from the Philippine National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), gave the Philippine Daily Inquirer a treasure trove of new surveillance images which depicts Beijing’s drive to militarize the heavily disputed artificially-created islands it controls in the South China Sea.
The super high-resolution surveillance images were published on the Inquirer’s website on Monday but date back from June through December 2017. The photos were snapped around the disputed Spratly islands between the Philippines and Vietnam at an altitude of 1,500 meters (4,921 feet), and show how Beijing transformed the reefs into a network of air bases and naval bases.
Coincidentally, the Philippines also claimed land features in the Spratly Islands, namely on the Fiery Cross, Cuerteron, Gaven, Johnson South, Mischief, Subi and McKennan reefs. Further, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam all have made claims to this region, as well.
One Chinese professor from Xiamen University’s Southeast Asian Studies Center told the Global Times newspaper, “China has the right to build whatever it needs within its territory” in the South China Sea.
Back in December, the U.S. think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) reported that Kagitingan Reef had the most construction in 2017. In the surveillance picture below, Beijing has almost completed a large-scale airbase for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force on the reef. The base would be the first of its kind and provide air superiority in the South China Sea.
In a more in-depth view, The Inquirer labels Beijing’s strategic assets on the Kagitngan Reef, which happen to be critical systems to operate a large-scale airbase with enough space for a squadron of fighter aircraft.
Last month, the Philippines Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said, “the fact that they are actually using it now as military bases, as far as I’m concerned, is not new. It’s not news because we’ve always been against militarization of the area. But the good faith commitment is not to reclaim new islands. I hope that’s very clear.”
“The point is, has there been a breach of Chinese commitment not to reclaim any new islands or shoal in the area? For as long as there is none, then we continue to respect that they are true to their commitment not to do so. But I think, from the very beginning, China, we knew, was militarizing the area by reclaiming these areas and by using them as military bases,” he added.
The Inquirer outlines the three major airbases in the South China Sea situated on Kagitingan, Panganiban, and Zamora Reefs.
The runways for the three biggest reefs—Kagitingan, Panganiban and Zamora—appeared either completed or almost ready for use. Lighthouses, radomes, communication facilities, hangars and multistory buildings had also been built on the artificial islands. Amti, which described 2017 as a “constructive year for Chinese base building” in the South China Sea, noted the presence of underground tunnels, missile shelters, radars and high-frequency antennas on the artificial islands.
The Inquirer shows how the airbase on Panganiban Reef (as of Dec 2017) has almost neared completion.
The Inquirer further details the cargo ships, military warships, and supply vessels, which have been spotted throughout the Spratly islands providing logistical support to the military installations on the reefs.
Three military ships capable of transporting troops and weapons were docked at Panganiban Reef in a picture taken last Dec. 30. These were two transport ships (Hull Nos. 830 and 831) and an amphibious transport dock (989). The Luoyang (527), a Type 053H3 Jiangwei II class missile frigate, was spotted about a kilometer from Zamora Reef last Nov. 15. This type of war vessel has two quadruple launchers installed amidships. It also has a Type 79A dual-barrel 100 mm gun installed on the bow deck, capable of firing 15-kilogram shells at a rate of 18 rounds per minute over a range of 22 km. Last June 16, the Luzhou (592), a Type 056 Jiangdao class missile frigate, was photographed at Panganiban Reef. China’s defense ministry reported the vessel took part in live-fire exercises in the South China Sea last December. On the smaller reefs—Burgos, Calderon, McKennan and Mabini—the photos showed helipads, wind turbines, observation towers, radomes and communication towers had been built. A photo taken last Nov. 28 showed a single-barrel 100 mm gun had been positioned on McKennan Reef.
Some photographs show cargo ships and supply vessels, which the article said appeared to be delivering construction supplies to the China-controlled islands.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a member of the Philippine legal team who fought China’s claim to the South China Sea in the Hague arbitral court, criticized Roque’s position, “comparing it to trusting a thief,” said the Inquirer.
“You don’t rely on the good faith of the thief [who’s trying to break] into your house. If you have that mindset, you rely on the good faith of someone who’s trying to break into your house, that means you’re out [of touch] with reality. You’re in a fantasyland. That’s not how the world is put together. That’s not realpolitik,” Carpio said.
“The biggest [security] problem is China. If we lose [our maritime space in the West Philippine Sea], we lose it forever,” Carpio told the Inquirer in a recent interview, using the local name of the waters within the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea.
“And the area we will lose is huge, as big as the land area of the Philippines, about 300,000 square kilometers,” Carpio said.
And lastly, the Inquirer asks what’s at stake if China becomes the dominant player in the South China Sea:
If the Philippines does not assert its legal victory, it stands to lose 80 percent of its EEZ in the South China Sea, covering 381,000 square kilometers of maritime space, including the entire Recto Bank, or Reed Bank, and part of the Malampaya gas field off Palawan, as well as all of the fishery, oil and gas and mineral resources there, Carpio said. “My estimate is 40 percent of water in the Philippines is in the West Philippine Sea, so that’s 40 percent of the fish that we can catch and we will lose that as a food source,” he said. “Malampaya supplies 40 percent of the energy requirement of Luzon. If Malampaya runs out of gas in 10 years or less . . . we will have 10 to 12 hours of daily brownouts in Luzon. It will devastate the economy,” he added.
What happens next? Expect China to fully stock the military bases in the preperation for a resource conflict in the South China Sea…
Unclassified Full Report: Surveillance Images Images Show Beijing’s militarisation of South China Sea via the Inquirer