South China Sea: Philippines Plans Spratly Upgrades

The Philippines Armed Forces will upgrade the airstrip on Thitu Island, among other improvement.

South China Sea: Philippines Plans Spratly Upgrades
Credit: Planet Labs imagery. Pag-asa Island on August 15, 2017.

The Philippines will begin important upgrades to its primary outpost in the disputed Spratly group in the South China Sea. According to Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program will finance the paving of the 1.3 kilometer-long airstrip on Thitu, or Pag-Asa, Island—the largest Philippine holding in the Spratly group, where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims.

In addition to the airstrip upgrade on Thitu Island, the Armed Forces of the Philippines will also endeavor to implement long-sought upgrades to barracks, water systems, and other facilities on nine other features in the Spratly Islands. According to Voice of America, the modernization program, launched in 2012 under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, who took a particular interest in the South China Sea, has a budget of $2.56 this year.

The planned upgrades for Thitu Island demonstrate a degree of continuity in Manila’s South China Sea policy under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who, since entering office in July 2016, has pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing. Recently, Chinese naval and coast guard vessels approached Thitu Island, with little response from the Duterte administration.

Last year, in July, the Philippines saw an overwhelmingly favorable award from a Hague-based tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a case that the Aquino administration had filed in 2013 over maritime entitlement disputes and other issues concerning China. Duterte, however, has increased bilateral cooperation with China.

Even as the planned upgrades move forward, Manila-Beijing cooperation in the South China Sea will carry on. Last week, Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi said that Manila would move ahead with oil and gas exploration near disputed waters with a Chinese state-owned enterprise. “We are looking for a win-win solution to move things forward so that we can enjoy whatever resources are there,” Cusi said at a media briefing.