According to Romeo Brawner, the chief of Manila’s military, the country will develop islands in the South China Sea that it claims as part of its territory in orto them more livable for military personnel on Monday, January 15.
The announcement of the plans coincides with heightened hostilities between China and the Philippines, who both assert territorial claims in the South China Sea and have exchanged accusations of belligerent behaviour in the vital waterway.
Long-standing maritime disputes and more recent incidents that have strained relations between Manila and Beijing provide a backdrop against which to consider this development initiative. Improved living conditions for soldiers stationed on these strategically important islands are a goal of the Philippines as it navigates this complex geopolitical landscape, in addition to strengthening its military presence.
In the South China Sea, an area that has grown to be a focal point for conflicting territorial claims, China and the Philippines have a history of maritime territorial disputes. Due to several incidents involving vessels from both countries, relations between the two countries have drastically deteriorated recently. In Amidese disputes is the Second Thomas Shoal, also referred to as Ayungin locally, while the Philippines occupies eight other South China Sea features.
The Philippines regards the remaining eight features as being within its exclusive economic zone, with the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. This includes the largest and most strategically significant island in the South China Sea, Thitu Island, also referred to as Pagasa. Located about 480 kilometres west of the Philippine province of Palawan, Thitu is important to the country’s claims to its territory.
Recently, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the head of the Philippine military, unveiled plans to upgrade all nine features, highlighting the necessity of improving the islands’ infrastructure to make them more livable for soldiers stationed there. The installation of communications infrastructure and desalination machines on the islands of Thitu and Nanshan is one of the suggested upgrades.
“We are just trying to make it more livable, more habitable for our soldiers because they real poor living conditions,” remarked military chief Brawner during a press briefing. By addressing the difficulties that soldiers stationed on these isolated islands face, the plan seeks to improve living conditions and operational effectiveness.
Although the development plans cover several islands, one is purposefully left out: the Sierra Madre, a dilapidated ship from World War II that grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999. The Philippine Navy purposefully grounded the Sierra Madre to demonstrate the nation’s territorial claims. Even though the Sierra Madre was left out of the modernization plans, it continues to be a significant symbol in the ongoing territorial disputes.
The Philippines’ efforts to develop these strategically important islands represent a larger change in the country’s defence in addition to enhancing military infrastructure. The strategy fits with the Philippines’ shift from an emphasis on internal defence that is more focused on territorial defence military’s modernization plans call for the purchase of additional ships, radars, and aircraft as part of this change.
With several countries claiming conflicting claims to sovereignty—Bringei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, among others—the South China Sea continues to be a flashpoint of geopolitical tension. China specifically maintains claims over nearly the whole South China Sea, disobeying an international tribunal’s decision to declare its claims unfounded.