The Chinese Communist Party continued to expand its illegal construction on Philippine territory in the South China Sea throughout the coronavirus pandemic, satellite images published this week indicated.
China claims the entirety of the South China Sea, including territory legally belonging to the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Beijing also claims waters off the coast of Indonesia, infuriating Jakarta. A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague found China’s claims to the territory, which the Communist Party argues are based on “ancient” ownership, were not legal, nor was any Chinese presence in regions legally belonging to other countries.
China has spent years building artificial islands, now equipped with military assets, in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which legally belong to Vietnam and the Philippines. Chinese ships have also repeatedly harassed, and in some cases, sank, ships from both countries present in their domestic waters. Neither Hanoi nor Manila have made significant moves to contain China, in part due to the comparatively small size of their militaries.
U.S.-based firm Simularity released photos this week from Mischief Reef, a Philippine territory in the South China Sea, showing structures built by China not visible in prior satellite images. China has been building Mischief Reef into an artificial island and equipping it with military technology since at least 2017, causing irreparable environmental damage. It is the largest of China’s artificial islands in the Spratly chain. According to the Philippine media outlet ABS-CBN, China has been attempting to usurp Mischief Reef since 1995, building wooden barracks on the then-much smaller land mass.
The Simularity images showed new clearings on the artificial island that experts told the Philippine Star on Thursday were likely spaces for new buildings. The firm estimated that the earliest the new structures visible in the photos were there is likely around October 2020, indicating that China continued illegal construction on the reef throughout the pandemic.
“In one area, a satellite image dated February 4 showed construction of a 16-meter permanent cylindrical structure, which is a possible antennae mount structure,” the Star reported. “In several areas on the island, a concrete structure with a large radome cover, possibly a fixed radar structure, was seen.”
The latest report did not offer much clarity on the uses of the new construction, or if they are of military or civilian nature. Chinese officials have repeatedly denied that any of Beijing’s activity in the region is military, though satellite images have shown surface-to-air missiles, military surveillance equipment, and other assets placed in the South China Sea.
The Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, but won the case against Beijing under current President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has proven significantly less assertive against China than Aquino, repeatedly stating that he would not challenge China in the South China Sea because he does not consider the Philippine military strong enough to withstand a war against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Duterte has refused to enforce the Hague ruling against China, allowing for further construction.
“I’m walking on a tightrope actually. I cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because we are avoiding any confrontation, a confrontation that would lead to something which we can hardly afford, at least not at this time,” Duterte said most recently in remarks last week, speaking to members of the Philippine Air Force.
Duterte has made some public statements reminding China that its presence in the Philippines is illegal despite his assurances that he would never enforce the law.
“We must remain mindful of our obligation and commitment to the charter of the United Nations. And as is amplified by the 1982 Manila declaration on the peaceful settlement of international disputes, the Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with UNCLOS [U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea] and the 2016 arbitral award,” Duterte told the United Nations General Assembly in 2020.
“The award is now part of international law,” he said of the Hague ruling. “Beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon. We firmly reject attempts to undermine it. We welcome an increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for.”