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Manila Asserts Claims Over South China Sea Island

Manila Asserts Claims Over South China Sea Island

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana tours the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island during his visit to the Spratlys Group of islands off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines Friday, April 21, 2017. (AP/Bullit Marquez)

After bowing to Beijing’s request to retract his threat to plant a flag on Pag-asa (Thitu) Island over Philippine Independence Day on June 12, the mercurial Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has likely angered the Chinese again.

Immediately after his retraction, his military announced on April 16 its plans to hold ten days of joint military exercises with U.S. troops in May. Duterte then sent his defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, his military chief of staff General Eduardo Ano and about 40 journalists, to tour Thitu Island on April 21 in an apparent show of sovereignty over the disputed island.

Before landing, the Philippine C-130 military aircraft received a warning from Chinese forces to leave the airspace. In conjunction with the visit, plans were announced to invest $32 million in upgrading the island’s military infrastructure, including the upgrading of its runway. Filipino troops have been stationed on Thitu since the 1960s.

The move to again engage the Americans comes after months of heated anti-U.S. rhetoric from Duterte since he assumed office last summer. Duterte has long mistrusted the U.S., recently lambasted the presence of American troops, called for the end of joint military exercises, and even called for a “separation” from the U.S. while courting billions of aid and investment from Beijing last October. “I announce my separation from the United States both in the military… not social, but economics also,” he told the Chinese in Beijing, “so I will be dependent on you for a long time.”

The military exercises, known as Balikatan (Shoulder-to-Shoulder), are held every year, but this year will not involve any live-fire exercises or simulations of protecting territory, such as the disputed islands with China (China seized Mischief Reef from Manila beginning in 1994 and took Scarborough Shoal in early 2012). Rather, the exercises among some 5,000 American and Filipino soldiers will be limited to disaster and humanitarian responses and counter-terrorism efforts.

The toning down of the military exercises (and his promise not to plant a flag) are likely appeasements to Beijing, where Duterte intends to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping in May. But Beijing cannot be happy about the military cooperation with the U.S. and the defense secretary’s visit to Thitu island. For now, Filipino fishing boats, Chinese military vessels and Chinese industrial fishing boats are all operating in the Scarborough Shoal peacefully. But there are recent reports that Filipino fishermen were harassed and driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard from Union Bank in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea.

Any slight skirmish there (or elsewhere) could spark a military clash and draw in the U.S. military – which is bound by the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 to protect its ally’s islands.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666