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Philippines Plans to Upgrade Island Bases in the South China Sea

The decaying military outpost aboard a grounded World War II LST at Second Thomas Shoal (Armed Forces of the Philippines)
The decaying military outpost aboard a grounded World War II LST at Second Thomas Shoal (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published Jan 16, 2024 5:58 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a decision that is sure to anger Beijing, the Philippine government says that it will upgrade facilities on multiple land features in its western exclusive economic zone, including areas contested by China. 

Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said Monday that the Philippines would like to pursue a construction program to improve conditions for troops to live on these remote islands and reefs, where they defend the government's claim to ownership and sovereignty over the region. "We’d like to improve all the nine [bases], especially the islands we are occupying," Brawner said.

The nine bases that Brawner referred to include Thitu Island, the largest Philippine-occupied land feature in the region, and Second Thomas Shoal, which is a major flash point for confrontations with China. The Philippine Navy maintains an outpost aboard a decaying, grounded landing ship on the reef, and it has been attempting to restore the structure. Security experts predict that the wreck will become uninhabitable in the near future, and that a replacement is necessary. However, the China Coast Guard has worked hard to prevent convoys with construction materials, supplies and personnel from getting through. China vocally opposes restoration or replacement of the structure, and it has repeatedly called on Manila to remove the station. 

"China has indisputable sovereignty over [the Spratly Islands] and the adjacent waters. We firmly oppose relevant countries illegal construction on the islands and reefs they have illegally occupied in [the Spratly Islands]," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Tuesday, responding to Gen. Brawner's remarks. 

Brawner's proposed construction program mirrors China's island-building program in the region. China has developed a string of full-scale military bases in the archipelago, including several with military runways, hardened hangars, long-range radars and air-defense installations.

China claims ownership of the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters, including areas within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, like Second Thomas Shoal.  In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China's historically-based claims to the South China Sea are without merit under international law. China has ignored the ruling and has deployed its "gray zone" forces - white-hulled coast guard cutters and militia-operated "commercial" fishing trawlers - to enforce its claims.