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Time to move on

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First of three parts

IT is quite obvious that the belligerent foreign policy towards China, started by Benigno Aquino 3rd, reversed by Rodrigo Duterte, and revived by Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s officials (but apparently not officially declared by him) has yielded nothing to advance our national interests. If this hostility continues, we risk an economic catastrophe since, whether we like it or not, China has become our biggest trading partner, and a military power at that.

Only an ideological China-hater (i.e., “China has and will always view itself as the center of the world”) or one advancing the US program to demonize China to slow down its rise as the Asian superpower would insist on continuing the clearly counterproductive unfriendly stance towards a neighbor, which could even be — as in the case of a few Asean nations — the biggest source of private and public capital.

The following is a slightly edited version of the final chapter in my 2022 book “Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception” that discusses three main thrusts in resolving our disputes in the South China Sea.

From Debacle book:

The stark reality is that it has become moot and academic today to debate on which country has the legitimate sovereignty over the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

The arbitration case vs China is a victory but only in a legalistic way and if misinterpreted to be used merely as propaganda tool. But it is really smoke and mirrors, as Duterte put it, a mere “piece of paper” without any real impact on the resolution of the SCS disputes. Except for the US and its usual followers, most of the world have ignored it. There is no world government that can force the claimants to agree to submit the case to the International Court of Justice to rule on the disputes.

Worse, the suit gave China the excuse to transform from 2013 to 2015 its seven reefs, which had since 1988 only the most basic barracks for at most two dozen of its personnel, into artificial islands equipped with all the facilities to make it a military base, an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” as one US admiral put it. Threatened by the prospects of the arbitration suit declaring the reefs as mere “rocks,” the Chinese made that threat moot and academic, as the seven reefs were made into islands, “artificial” through reclamation yes, but still islands bigger, except for Taiwan’s Taiping, than any of the natural islands occupied by us and other nations.

As a US Navy think-tank concluded after a lengthy study of the disputes: “The reality on the ground is that China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines all permanently occupy features in the Spratly group; some have done so for over 50 years.” These countries may well claim that the length of such occupation strengthens their sovereignty claims, as effective occupation (effectivités) is viewed in international law as one means of acquiring sovereignty over a particular territory.

Essential moves

The Philippines needs to face reality squarely, and undertake three essential moves.

First, it has to tighten its hold on the islands and reefs it already occupies by developing and fortifying them. This is what the other claimants have been doing for years, but which the administrations after Marcos failed to do.

Second is to pursue joint development of the Spratlys’ resources with the claimants, which China decades back had declared is in fact its main proposal in addressing the SCS disputes.

Third is to rid its citizens of the brainwashing undertaken by the Aquino 3rd regime and the US propaganda apparatus that has concealed the real nature of our disputes with China. Without this, as discussed in subsequent columns, we will never be able to resolve our South China Sea quandary.

1. Develop what we occupy

It borders on the ridiculous that while the Philippines is the country noisiest in asserting its claims in the SCS, quarreled with China over this, and even spent P1 billion to undertake a useless arbitration suit against the superpower on the issue, it has not done what was so obvious to the other claimants to protect its claims: fortify the islands and reefs it occupies.

This in fact is the most basic thing to do in territorial disputes, called the “sunk costs strategy.” This means, crudely, that a nation would succeed in convincing a rival claimant not to invade if it invests heavily in the territory it occupies.

This is what the five claimants in the Spratlys have been doing since the 1980s.

In reaction to the Philippines’ arbitration suit that threatened a ruling for it to vacate the reefs it occupies in the Spratlys, China spent $100 billion for an unprecedented reclamation and development work that transformed the mostly submerged reefs it has occupied since 1988 into artificial islands. From having practically zero land area in the Spratlys, China now has 1,300 hectares in islands and has the most advanced facilities in the area.

Similarly, after the arbitration case was filed, Taiwan authorities spent $100 million to upgrade its airport built in 2007 and to build other facilities in Taiping Island, the biggest landform in the Spratlys, which quite ironically the arbitral panel ruled as merely a “rock” not entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone. Taiping is the only island in the Spratlys to be visited by two of its heads of state (Ma Ying-jeou in 2016 and Chen Shui-bian in 2008), a powerful message of Taiwan’s assertion of its sovereignty over it.


Vietnam was also at the heels of China’s artificial-island building blitz, adding 50 hectares through reclamation. By 2021, it had built on the 30 features it occupies in the Spratlys one airport, 13 artificial islands, 38 helipads, 49 reef forts, 24 ‘pillbox’ concrete structures, and four radar stations. It even adopted a new form of outposts: the so-called DK1 rigs that are patterned after offshore oil rigs. Vietnam has at least 14 of these on its submerged reefs.

Much earlier in 2000, Vietnam built an airstrip on its biggest holding in the Spratlys, the Spratly Island. It doubled its size in 2016 so it could be used by its largest warplanes. Reuters in 2016 reported that Vietnam had discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed SCS with mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations.

A nation ravaged by war that ended only in 1975, Vietnam managed to spend billions of dollars over the years to build up its facilities and reclaim land on most of its 29 islands and reefs.

Malaysia, which occupied Swallow Reef in 1983, developed it not just as a fortified outpost. It built Layang Layang Island Resort complete with air-conditioned rooms and other resort amenities, with its website billing it as a scuba-diving resort, and dubbing it the “The Jewel of the Borneo Banks.”

Mischief Reef

In 1995, following the furor over China’s occupation of Mischief Reef, President Fidel Ramos had announced a similar project: that Pag-asa Island in the Kalayaan Island Group would be developed into a resort island with the Ayala conglomerate as its private sector partner. Nothing happened to the plan which has been totally forgotten.

Meanwhile, Malaysia built in Layang Layang an airport, fishing port, air traffic and radar stations, and other buildings including those for its permanent contingent of soldiers. Malaysia made it into a five-star scuba-diving resort. Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi visited the island in 2009, strengthening his country’s claims over the reef-turned-island.
In sharp contrast to the other five claimants in the SCS, the Philippines has done nothing to develop the islands and reefs that it occupies. Yet it gets the biggest coverage from international media by openly quarreling with China and because the arbitration suit it filed that ultimately proved useless to the Philippines, but a boon to the US.

The current president’s father Ferdinand Marcos Sr. has been the only president to have constructed something substantial to the natural features of Pag-asa, the biggest island the Philippines controls in the Spratlys — an airstrip, built in 1978. Without that airstrip, the Philippines would have most likely lost control of the island, because travel by air force planes has been its main link to it, as it is nearly inaccessible by sea during most of the year. Even Navy vessels hesitate to go to it because of the treacherous reefs and coral formations around it.


After Marcos, however, very little has been done to develop Pag-asa or the other maritime features the country has occupied in the Spratlys since the 1970s. The western end of the airstrip at Pag-asa in fact was eroding to the sea until 2018 when President Duterte ordered it repaired and returned to its original length. It is a pathetic sight indeed, compared to the doubling of the length of the airstrip at Vietnam’s Spratly Island. (Figure 1) Such was the Philippines’ neglect of its claimed territories in the Spratlys that when President Joseph Estrada ordered in 1999 the World War 2-era BRP Sierra Madre to be grounded in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), in order to assert the country’s claim over it, it was seen as a pathetic, but necessary move. To this day, a platoon of marines continues to man the rusty vessel which serves as the country’s military outpost, a sorry sight, especially if compared with the fortified outposts built by Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

Figure 1: Philippines’ Pag-asa Island, left column, unchanged from 2007 to 2019; Vietnam’s Spratly Island (Dao Truong Sa), new airstrip during the same period. GOOGLE EARTH PRO AND AMTI

After previous administrations that just whined to the world about the country’s troubles with its neighbors, as Aquino 3rd most especially did, President Duterte at least ordered in April 2018 the most rational and realistic approach to defend Philippine claims in the SCS: He directed the military to fortify the islands and reefs that the Philippines already occupies in the Spratlys. Duterte’s announcement was big news abroad. The headline of the South China Morning Post declared: “Duterte orders troops to occupy and fortify Philippine-held islands in South China Sea. That of the Wall Street Journal, the banner story for its Asia section read: “Rodrigo Duterte Orders Fortification of All Philippine-Held South China Sea Islands.”

Ours is ours

While ranting against China and screaming that “what is ours is ours,” the administration of Aquino 3rd during its six years in power spent nothing to secure Pag-asa Island. Yet it doled out P220 billion to bribe the senators so they would vote to impeach his family’s perceived enemy, then Chief Justice Renato Corona.

The incumbent Senate will be spending over P15 billion for its new building in the upscale Bonifacio Global City, to house the offices and assembly hall of its 24 senators. Under Aquino, a law was even passed to build what was supposed to be a “monument to remind Filipinos of the horrors of Martial Law,” but which in reality is a memorial to honor the Philippine Communist Party’s casualties in its armed struggle to overthrow a democratic government.

Congress has not passed a law, nor allocated a specific amount in the national budget, to fortify the islands and reefs the country currently controls and occupies in the Spratly archipelago. For all the screaming that the Philippines will not give an inch of our Exclusive Economic Zone, we do not have an official map declaring the exact location of this maritime zone.

On Monday: Joint Exploration

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    How can we move on when our war freak leaders are busy making enemies with even our own neighbors who are not even on our side? How can we fortify our claimed marine territories when we are giving away our inland territories to the “saviors”? We cannot declare that we are not giving up even an inch when we do not even have it in our official map.

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