The government of the Philippines announced on Tuesday that it would lodge a formal diplomatic protest with China over its construction of an airbase on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
“The Chinese government said some time ago that they were not going to militarize those reclaimed islands. If it is true and we can prove that they have been putting soldiers and even weapons systems, that will be a violation of what they said,” Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said at a press conference.
The defense secretary said the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs would be asked to file a diplomatic protest with China, citing the close proximity of Philippine oil and gas drilling interests in Reed Bank as a particular cause for concern.
“Remember those were not islands before, those were just reefs but they are now islands. According to them, they are not militarizing and it was for peaceful purposes only like tourism,” he pointed out.
“We have always been against the militarization of the area. It is certainly not OK because it constitutes a further threat to peace and security in the area,” said a spokesman for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He added that China appears to have honored a good-faith commitment not to artificially enhance and develop even more islands in the area.
Reuters notes that some of the key evidence comes from China itself, in the form of aerial photography of Fiery Cross Reef broadcast on state-run television at the end of December. The reef has displayed more signs of construction every time China broadcasts footage of it; the December release made it almost comically obvious that the reclaimed island now boasts a military facility.
American observers have pointed to other signs of militarization in the area recently, expressing fears that China is developing the military power needed to interfere with the huge amount of commercial shipping that passes through the South China Sea.
China claims it has merely constructed a “weather station” with an airport, hospital, and barracks on the reef. One never knows when a hospital with fifty doctors on staff, or a few hundred soldiers, might come in handy to deal with rambunctious cloud formations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang conceded to the South China Morning Post that maybe a wee bit more than weather forecasting is going down on Fiery Cross Reef. “Of course, China also needs to construct necessary defense equipment for its territory. The relevant equipment is not directed at any particular country,” he said.
The U.S. government was not mollified by this explanation. “China’s provocative militarisation of the South China Sea is one area where China is contesting international law. They are pushing around smaller states in ways that put a strain on the global system,” charged Brian Hook, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“We are going to back up freedom-of-navigation operations and let them know we will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Hook promised.
“We strongly believe China’s rise cannot come at the expense of the values and rule-based order. That order is the foundation of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific and also around the world. When China’s behavior is out of step with these values and these rules we will stand up and defend the rule of law,” he declared.