South China Sea: Philippines’ David vs Goliath sovereignty struggle encapsulated – in tiny Thitu Island

That base is just one of Beijing’s 27 outposts in the South China Sea equipped with ports, runways and other infrastructure aimed at asserting its sweeping claims in the key waterway.

Fortified South China Sea islands help project Beijing’s power: experts

By contrast, Manila occupies nine features that have few facilities or structures. Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have a presence in the area, and overlapping territorial claims.
This disparity explains, in part, the Philippines’ recent urgency in bolstering its defence alliances, most notably with the United States.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr has, over the past year, moved to assert his country’s rights in the waters. He’s been backed by unstinting US support.
Filipino soldiers stand to attention near a Philippine flag on Thitu island in 2017. The Philippines’ largest-occupied South China Sea feature is underdeveloped compared to those that China controls. Photo: Reuters
Marcos will meet US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in a trilateral summit at the White House on April 11 aimed at strengthening ties. Both Japan and the Philippines are treaty allies of the US.

On a recent visit to Thitu – which is also known as “Pag-asa”, the local word for hope – arranged by the Philippine Coast Guard, reporters saw first hand just how underdeveloped the Philippines’ largest-occupied feature in the disputed sea is.

Much of the island is still unpaved, with phone and internet signals hard to come by. There’s still evidence of the destruction caused by a 2021 typhoon: school buildings with damaged roofs and windows that are unusable.

Given its location – nearly 450km away from mainland Palawan province – residents sometimes wait days for basic supplies like noodles, coffee and soap to be ferried in. The coastguard’s new monitoring station appears largely rudimentary.

Still, the Southeast Asian nation is determined to maintain a civilian and military presence on Thitu. Aircraft can now land on its runway after repairs and expansion. A landing dock and a port have also been built, and construction is in full swing to extend the island farther into the sea. There are plans to equip the area with a naval port and radars.

Filipino soldiers on Thitu Island look out at Philippine coastguard vessels off the coast in December last year. There are plans to equip the area with a naval port and radars. Photo: AFP
Manila also recently sent researchers to check marine resources near Thitu, yet another step to assert its rights in disputed waters. The research initially found dead corals and small species of fish that suggest environmental degradation in the vicinity of the island, but didn’t directly attribute the findings to Beijing’s presence in the area.

“Our overarching strategy involves continuous enhancement of facilities, modernisation efforts, and fortification of assets and capabilities,” Philippine military spokeswoman Colonel Francel Margareth Padilla said when asked about plans for Thitu. “These measures are vital in upholding our sovereignty over Philippine territorial waters.”

China warns close military ties between US, Philippines could trigger conflict

The Philippines’ attempts are likely to draw opposition from China, which has refused to recognise a 2016 arbitral ruling that dashed its expansive claims. Beijing maintains a constant watch on the island and its coastguard and militia ships regularly patrol close to Thitu. Some of the vessels were involved in a recent tense encounter over nearby sandbars.

“At first, this was intended to coerce the Philippines into abandoning the upgrades,” said Gregory Poling, who directs the Southeast Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Now, it seems meant to merely intimidate the Philippines but with little chance of success.”

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