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Esperon: PH can’t stop China buildup on isles

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (ALLAN GOMEZ/NPPA IMAGES)

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (ALLAN GOMEZ/NPPA IMAGES)

The government is fully aware that China has nearly completed construction work on three Philippine-claimed reefs in the South China Sea but cannot do anything about it, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said on Wednesday.

Esperon, a former chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the government had its own pictures of the Chinese construction work on Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban reefs.

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He said the pictures were taken by the AFP Western Command, whose jurisdiction includes the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratly archipelago.

Military deployment ability

Esperon spoke to reporters two days after the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti), part of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, released a report saying runways, aircraft hangars, radar sites and hardened surface-to-air missile shelters had either been finished or nearing completion on the three reefs.

The development has given China the ability to deploy combat aircraft and other military assets to the disputed region whenever it wishes, the report said.

“Indeed the airstrips of 3 to 3.5 kilometers are in place. There are radars, but will these be for military use? It could be,” Esperon told reporters after attending a Senate hearing on the proposed establishment of a Benham Rise Development Authority.

Asked whether China’s construction work on the three reefs claimed by the Philippines in the Spratlys was a cause for concern for the government, Esperon, talking like President Duterte, replied: “Oh, yes. So what do you want us to do, attack the facility?”

Speaking to reporters on March 19 before leaving for official visits to Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, Mr. Duterte said he could not stop China from building on Panatag Shoal, as the Philippines was no match for China’s military might.

The official Hainan Daily reported the plan to build environmental monitoring stations on six islands in the South China Sea, including Panatag Shoal, on March 13, quoting Xiao Jie, the top Communist Party official in Sansha City, from where China’s claims in the sea are administered.

Strong protest

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On March 20, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said Mr. Duterte had other options to deal with China besides military action.

He said the government should file a strong protest against China’s plan to build on Panatag Shoal.

But instead of a diplomatic protest, the Department of Foreign Affairs sent a note verbale—an unsigned diplomatic communication written in the third person—seeking confirmation of Xiao’s statements in the Hainan Daily report.

China’s foreign ministry said the report was “not true.”

Esperon mentioned no plan to protest the Chinese construction work on the three Philippine reefs and when told about apprehension that weapons could be deployed on the reefs, replied that there were no missiles there yet.

Asked about the likelihood that the facilities on the reefs are for military use, Esperon said, “I don’t know, but it’s possible it may not be.”

He added: “It can be used for many other purposes. If these will not be for military use, this can be for civilian use.”

‘Freedom of navigation’

China has denied the accusation of the United States and others that it is militarizing the South China Sea, although last week Premier Li Keqiang said defense equipment had been placed on islands in the disputed waterway to maintain “freedom of navigation.”

But the Amti report said China was using its island-building project to give teeth to its claim over almost the entire South China Sea and its islands and reefs.

Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban—internationally known as Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs, respectively—are part of the Spratly chain, which is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China already uses an existing airfield on Woody Island in the similarly disputed Paracel chain, located to the north, where it has maintained mobile HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles for more than a year and deployed antiship cruise missiles on at least one occasion, the US think tank said.

The airfields and advanced surveillance and early warning radars will allow China’s military to operate over virtually the entire South China Sea, it said in its report.

“Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time,” the report said.

Esperon said it was better to “wait [for] what happens next” after the construction was finished. —WITH REPORTS FROM WIRES

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TAGS: China-Philippine Relations, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., mariitime dispute, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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