An artificial island at Scarborough Shoal could be a game changer in China’s quest to control the sea and raises the risk of armed confrontation with the United States, according to security analysts.
Beijing this week insisted it had not started building at the shoal a move that could lead to a military outpost just 230 kilometres (140 miles) from the main Philippine island, where US forces are stationed.
But the Philippines on Wednesday released images it said showed Chinese ships in the area that were capable of dredging sand and other activities required to build an artificial island.
“We have reason to believe that their presence is a precursor to building activities on the shoal,” defence department spokesman Arsenio Andolong told AFP.
“We are continuing our surveillance and monitoring of their presence and activities, which are disturbing.”
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, even waters approaching the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
The competing territorial claims have long been a major source of tension in the region, with China using deadly force twice to seize control of islands from Vietnam.
Tensions have escalated sharply in recent years as China has built islands on reefs and islets in the Spratlys archipelago another strategically important location that are capable of supporting military operations.
The United States has reacted to that build-up by sailing warships close to the new islands, and sending warplanes over them.
This has deeply angered China, which has accused the Americans of “militarising the region”, and raised concerns of armed conflict between the two world powers.
Illegal island building
A UN-backed tribunal ruled in July that China’s claims to most of the sea had no legal basis and its construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters was illegal.
But Beijing vowed to ignore the ruling.
China took control of Scarborough shoal in 2012 after a standoff with the Philippine Navy, and has since deployed large fishing fleets while blocking Filipino fishermen.
Expanding that presence with a military outpost is vital to achieving China’s ambitions of controlling the sea, according to security analysts.
US officials fear a Chinese military airfield at the shoal would enable China to enforce a threatened air defence identification zone in the sea.
Another major concern is it allows China a military base close to where US forces regularly operate on the Philippine main island of Luzon.
US President Barack Obama reportedly directly warned his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during a meeting in March not to push ahead with any artificial island building there.
The United States, which is a treaty ally of the Philippines, has repeatedly said it does not want to fight a war over the shoal.
But military confrontation can not be ruled out if China does start to build an island, according to security analysts.
“We could witness a physical confrontation between Chinese Coast Guard and Filipino vessels backed up by the US Navy,” Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales, told AFP.
An Obama aide on Wednesday played down the significance of the Philippine photos, telling reporters the United States had not detected any unusual activity at Scarborough Shoal.
When pressed on initial Philippine accusations on Monday before the photos were released, China insisted there were no dredging boats or others to prepare for island building.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said he did not want to anger China by highlighting the territorial row at the summit of regional leaders in Laos this week.
But the release of the photos came just a few hours before Duterte and other leaders from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations met China’s Li.
Also on Wednesday, the Philipppine coast guard announced that United States is giving Manila two used military aircraft, to help expand sea patrols in the face of territorial disputes with China.
The two Sherpa 30-seater aircraft will be delivered in December, Philippine coast guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo told AFP.
“It will help us in the movements of the Philippine Coast Guard like patrol missions,” Balilo added.
Obama is also in Laos for the regional meetings, which will conclude on Thursday with an East Asia summit.