Historian: Reefs’ reclamation China’s way to assert 9-dash-line claim

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Map showing the disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (south China Sea), including the Spratlys Islands and Scarborough Shoal. AFP

MANILA, Philippines—China’s land reclamation on reefs in the West Philippine Sea is its way of asserting its claim to almost the entire South China Sea that no other country recognizes, a Filipino security expert said on Saturday.

Jose Antonio Custodio, a security expert and military historian, also warned that the Philippines was already losing its territory to the Chinese.

With the reclamation of land on various reefs in the Spratly Islands, the Chinese are “expanding,” Custodio told the Inquirer in a phone interview.

“De facto, they are practically occupying areas that we claim … and strengthening the nine-dash line,” Custodio said, referring to China’s demarcation on official maps of its claim over 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.

President Benigno Aquino III said on Thursday that Chinese ships had been monitored moving toward other reefs in the West Philippine Sea, possibly to reclaim land at Gavin Reefs (Gaven Reefs) and Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef).

China is also reclaiming land on Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef) and Malvar Reef (Eldad Reef).

Chinese blockade

“Once they (Chinese) are able to consolidate, they would use this in an effort to establish a much more effective blockade … to intercept any movement from our side whether it is the military, the Coast Guard or even ordinary fishermen,” Custodio said.

He said the gradual developments initiated by China in the disputed territories would ultimately shut out the Philippines in its own exclusive economic zone.

China, Custodio said, is establishing a chain of occupied territories in the West Philippine Sea, “cutting off the garrisons, hoping that we ourselves would pull out, finding it unsustainable to keep our garrisons there.”

Taking note of the geopolitical issues in the Asia-Pacific region as well, Custodio said China may be eyeing two results with the strategy: frustrating the Philippines’ territorial claims as the “short-term” goal and denying the United States of movement in the region as the “long-term” objective.

For Custodio, the Philippines should start strengthening its Coast Guard to protect its seas since the Chinese are deploying their own Coast Guard vessels there.

PH losing territory

The Philippines should also consider improving and strengthening its garrisons in the Spratly Islands, including the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) garrison.

Custodio said that while the Philippines was “setting the moral high ground” by following the informal code of conduct among Spratly claimants, it is gradually losing parts of its territory.

Custodio was referring to the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a nonbinding agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to keep the status quo in the disputed waters.

“The Chinese are not following the code of conduct, we’re the only ones following [it],” Custodio said.

He stressed that it was time to improve the Philippine garrisons, including the rusty BRP Sierra Madre (LT 57), which the government ran aground on Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to mark its territory in the Spratlys after China seized Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in 1995.

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