Foreign analysts have urged the Duterte administration to protest China’s weather stations in the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that Beijing has begun operating a maritime observation center, a meteorological observatory and a national environmental and air quality monitoring station on its man-made islands located in Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs.
Malacañang refused to acknowledge China’s admission. “We have to look whether it’s true or not and then we will make our move, diplomatically,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said in a Palace briefing.
Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said this has become the Palace’s standard response to any reports of Chinese advances in the South China Sea.
“It appears intended to buy time for the government to formulate a response when Beijing takes actions like these which appear to contradict the Duterte government’s narrative that everything is fine and the Chinese are prepared to compromise,” he added.
Poling believes China’s weather stations in Spratlys serve military purposes.
“This is yet another step in Beijing’s effort to establish de facto control over the sea and airspace in the South China Sea. These are far less about providing public good than they are about establishing a record of Chinese jurisdiction and extending China’s power projection capabilities since weather monitoring is an important part of running a military air base,”
Author and foreign affairs analyst Gordon Chang echoed Poling’s view.
“Beijing needs those stations for military purposes, and it wants to bolster its sovereignty claims to the three features by showing it is in fact exercising control,” Chang said.
Chang also claimed the timing of China’s admission that the weather stations exist was intentional.
“The timing of China’s announcement, just before Xi Jinping visits Manila, cannot be coincidental. Beijing is trying to intimidate President Duterte, putting him into an inferior position before the visit. So far, China has succeeded in doing a number on the Philippine leader, who looks supine,” he said.
“The reality is that Beijing and Manila are engaged in a zero-sum sovereignty contest. Beijing wants to break apart the Philippines, grabbing islands. I’m not sure Duterte has figured out that the Philippines is nothing but islands and cannot afford to give up any one of them.”
“If I were Filipino, I would not want Beijing taking resources from my country, especially with the consent of my own government. Duterte is okay with that, however. He will be remembered poorly by his fellow citizens, and for good reason,” Chang added as he called on Manila to protest China’s move.
Anders Corr, the founder of The Journal of Political Risk, said without significant resistance, the Philippines may less likely assert control over its own territory.
“The President of the Philippines should immediately call in the Ambassador of China to protest these weather stations and to reiterate Philippine claims to its exclusive economic zone,” Corr said.
For Josh Kurlantzick, a senior fellow and Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, the weather stations and the call by China that it will potentially share data from its stations seem like an effort at public diplomacy, but he doubted it will set sail.
“I don’t think this effort at public diplomacy will be very successful, given that it’s a small thing compared to China’s overall reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea,” Kurlantzick said.
President Rodrigo Duterte is set to attend the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit from November 13 to 15.
China and ASEAN leaders are expected to discuss developments in the disputed South China Sea in the annual summit to be held in Singapore next week but the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department has said the extent of the discussion is still up in the air.