Maritime expert says VFA helped deter China from building more structures in WPS
MANILA, Philippines — The country’s Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States had prevented China from building structures in Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea in 2016.
China had been prepared to start the reclamation before the South China Sea arbitration ruling was issued in July 2016, maritime expert Jay Batongbacal said in an interview with ABS CBN News Channel on Monday (Feb. 10).
“The VFA did deter the transformation of Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island,” Batongbacal said.
He added that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana even acknowledged it.
The presence of A-10 Warthogs and F/A-18s of the Americans deterred China’s attempt to reclaim the shoal, he said.
Around that time, China had completed building structures on seven reefs and islands in the Spratlys, and reclaiming Scarborough Shoal would have given them greater control of the disputed waters.
The shoal, which is located within the country’s exclusive economic zone, was site of a standoff in 2012 between Philippine and Chinese government vessels. Since then, China maintained its presence there with its coast guard ships. The Chinese occupation prompted the Philippine government to bring the issue to international court.
China insists it owns almost all of the South China Sea, including waters close to the shores of other claimants in the strategic waterway, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in 2016 that invalidated these claims.
After China’s massive island building in Spratlys, it was only then that that it became clear to the US the “real danger” it presented to freedom of navigation.
“In 2012, that wasn’t obvious because China didn’t have military bases in Spratlys,” Batongbacal said.
“Those three large artificial islands, they were just reefs and outposts and no offensive military capability. There was no attempt on the part of China to fully exclude other countries in that area,” Batongbacal said.
The shoal, he said, now remains as “the only piece left in the puzzle that they’re trying to build” but China might see an opportunity to proceed with reclamation when the VFA is no longer in place.
“They can now completely exclude other countries from the South China Sea militarily if they’re able to put into place all of these military bases,” Batongbacal said.
President Rodrigo Duterte had threatened to terminate the VFA with the US in retaliation for the revocation of the US visa of his close political ally, Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa.
The US neither confirmed nor deny the revocation and offered no explanation but it was highly likely that a revocation would be linked to Dela Rosa’s role in Duterte’s bloody campaign against drugs.
Duterte’s foreign and security officials, who acknowledged the President’s prerogative to terminate the agreement, only called for a “vigorous review” of the VFA and not its outright termination.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the regular presence of Americans had prevented China from taking more aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea.
Edited by TSB
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.