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China planning permanent structures on Bajo de Masinloc?

China has maintained a continued naval presence on Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal, which is widely seen as a preparation for the establishment of a permanent structure well within Philippine territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

A confidential Philippine government report acknowledged that Beijing will use its growing military capability to assert its sovereignty and control in the disputed territories despite Manila’s assertions and continued diplomatic efforts to resolve the disputes.

Documents obtained by News5 showed that Chinese Coast Guard and Marine Surveillance vessels have been constantly present on the shoal as far back as April 2012.

Apart from the ships, it appears China has also been placing buoys as a “prelude” to the establishment of a permanent presence on the shoal. 

Bajo de Masinloc, the largest atoll in the West Philippine Sea, which China calls Huangyan Island, sits on an area believed to hold vast mineral, oil, and gas reserves. 

China's presence 

The Philippine government report of China’s continued naval presence comes after major developments involving the South China Sea disputes: China’s enforcement of a fisheries law and China state media reports that Beijing has readied a “detailed combat plan” to seize control of Pag–asa Island in the Kalayaan Island Group, located in the Philippine zone of the disputed Spratly islands.

“The Philippines is so arrogant as to announce in the New Year that it will increase its navy and air force deployment at Zhongye (Pag–Asa)  Island, a Chinese island that it has illegally occupied for years,” the Qianzhan report said, emphasizing further: “The battle is aimed at recovery of the island stolen by the Philippines from China.”

But the report assured that, “There will be no invasion into Filipino territories.”

Government documents showed that for whole 2013, China has maintained at least one ship in the Bajo de Masinloc/Scarborough Shoal area. The only times the Chinese ships withdrew from the area was in July and November due to bad weather “but returned a few days after.”

In April 2012, the Philippines intercepted eight Chinese fishing vessels on Bajo de Masinloc and seized large amounts of illegal collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks. China protested the seizures, insisting Bajo de Masinloc is within Chinese territory.

Manila strongly argued that Bajo de Masinloc is not part of the disputed territories wit China and that it is 124 nautical miles from the coast of Luzon – well within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

Similar to Mischief Reef? 

Since the start of the standoff in April 2012, Chinese Maritime Surveillance and PLA Navy ships were present on Bajo de Masinloc. The government report stated the presence of the ships there is part of a China’s pattern to establish a permanent presence – similar to what they did in Mischief Reef.

“China has a history of occupying islands or territory that does not belong to her, just like the case of Mischief Reef. We should not discount the possibility that it will exert its full influence and capacity in order to occupy disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea and Scarborough Shoal as evidence by the prepositioning of naval frigates and destroyers,” the confidential government report stated.

Surveillance photos, taken in August 2013, show three Chinese coast guard vessels were seen at the shoal’s entrance. The photos also showed that China has placed a white buoy and built a concrete platform near the shoal’s entrance.

The Chinese Coast Guard vessels were identified by their hull numbers: BN 1127, BN 1117, and BN 3412.

“The sighting of buoys at Scarborough Shoal is seen as a prelude to occupation as patterned from the occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995,” the documents stated, adding that the Chinese ships allows them to respond “quickly to a contingency at Scarborough Shoal.”

The buoy and concrete platform are different from the 75 concrete blocks found in the area, which Manila had earlier claimed was placed by China. It was later found out the blocks were placed by the US since the area was once used as a gunnery range.

In the Mischief Reef case, the Philippine discovered buoys and concrete platforms placed by China but Beijing at that time insisted they wouldl just build shelters on stilts for its fishermen.

However, over the years, Beijing gradually built a massive garrison made up of four complexes with 13 multi–storey buildings that can house up to 50 soldiers. The Mischief Reef complex is also equipped with satellite communications and radar facilities, a windmill to provide power, helicopter landing pads, and docks for patrol ships.

The report likewise warned that China is expected to show “more assertive actions” should Manila confront them anew over Bajo de Masinloc.

According to the report, among the expected Chinese reponses to Manila are: a show of force to demonstrate effective control of Scarborough Shoal; deploy more maritime law enforcement ships to prevent the Philippines’ from patrolling the area and the construction / placement of more buoys around Scarborough Shoal.

Philippine Coast Guard has maintained patrols in the area, shadowing the Chinese ships.

The report concluded by stressing that “the situation at Scarborough Shoal requires the Philippines to remain vigilant and ready in any eventuality should tensions escalate between the two claimants.”

Bajo de Masinloc's importance to China

French geographer Francois-Xavier Bonnet, research associate of the Bangkok-based Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia, explains the importance of Bajo de Masinloc to China in his November 2012 paper titledGeopolitics of Scarborough Shoal

He says the shoal is part of a larger archipelago called Zhongsha Qundao, whose only features above sea level are the few rocks on Bajo de Masinloc. 

“The stakes are high... If China loses these rocks, it would not only lose the natural resources around the shoal (fishing grounds and the potential deposits of polymetallic nodules4) but also the possibility of claiming Zhongsha Qundao and, by consequence, the whole of the South China Sea,” says Bonnet. 

Article Source: InterAksyon


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