Philippines fixes airstrip on South China Sea island

MANILA (GDC) — Philippines on Tuesday said it completed the construction of a beaching ramp on Thitu Island in the South China Sea, allowing it to proceed with runway repairs.

A Filipino soldier patrols the shores of Pagasa island (Thitu Island) in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines.   Courtesy Reuters

The Philippines has repaired a runway and upgrading other facilities on Thitu Island, the South China Sea territory that was last year the scene of a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels, according to a Washington-based think tank.

The airstrip on Thitu Island was built in the 1970s and was the first of its kind in the Spratly Islands. Over time, however, the western end of the runway crumbled which, coupled with the poor condition of its surface, made it difficult for aircraft to take-off and land.

Besides the repairs to the runway, seven new buildings were built on Thitu last year, four of them close to a residential area on the eastern side of the island.

Satellite images taken on May 17 show two barges anchored near the western edge of the runway, one of which appears to be fitted with a grab dredger, which comprises a crane with clamshell bucket, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said on Saturday.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the decision to proceed with the repairs and upgrades on Thitu might be a sign of the growing domestic pressure on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to stand up to Beijing.

“There have been numerous developments: the alleged stand-off between Chinese and Philippine forces at a sandbar close to the island … and China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, all of which have put great pressure on the Duterte administration,” he said.

“[It seems] they have fuelled calls from the Philippines’ political, military and civil circles to revive the refurbishment and upgrading project.”

Richard Heydarian, assistant professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said the upgrading of facilities by the Philippines was consistent with the 2016 ruling of an international tribunal at the Hague, which rejected China’s historical claims over the disputed waters.

“China’s rapid militarisation of the disputes is clearly forcing other claimant states to fortify their position,” he said.

“The Philippines, which has continuously and effectively exercised control over Thitu and other disputed land features over the past four decades, seems far from engaging in any activity anywhere near what China has done, or even Vietnam.”

The South China Sea is a resource-rich area claimed by Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. The United States is not a claimant state, but has sent military vessels to the disputed waters for freedom of navigation operation.

Last week, an H-6K strategic bomber from the air force of China’s People’s Liberation Army landed on Woody Island in the South China Sea, triggering accusations from the Pentagon that Beijing was increasing tensions and destabilising the region, as well as protests from Vietnam.

China has been steadily building up its civilian and military facilities in the disputed waterway. According to a recent Reuters report, which cited satellite images, China now has almost 400 buildings on Subi Reef, the largest of its seven man-made outposts in the Spratly Islands.

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