Philippines opens a coast guard surveillance base in the South China Sea to watch Chinese vessels
THITU ISLAND, South China Sea (AP) — The Philippine coast guard inaugurated a new monitoring base Friday on a remote island occupied by Filipino forces in the disputed South China Sea as Manila ramps up efforts to counter China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the strategic waterway.
Confrontations between Chinese and Philippine ships have intensified this year in the contested waters, resulting in minor but alarming collisions near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal occupied by a Filipino marine contingent in October.
The high-seas faceoffs have fueled fears of a larger conflict that could involve the United States, which has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, if Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.
China has accused the U.S. of meddling in an Asian dispute and sowing discord in the region.
National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano and other Philippine officials flew to Thitu Island on an air force plane Friday and led a ceremony to open the newly constructed, two-story center that will have radar, ship-tracking and other monitoring equipment — either already installed or added early next year — to monitor China’s actions in the hotly disputed waters and other problems, including sea accidents.
“It’s no longer gray zone. It’s pure bullying,” Ano told reporters after the ceremony, describing the actions of Chinese ships as flouting international law.
Later peering through a mounted telescope on the island, Ano said he spotted at least 18 suspected Chinese militia ships scattered off Thitu, including a Chinese navy vessel.
Villagers say they have gotten used to the sight of Chinese ships lurking at a distance from Thitu, but a few say they’re still haunted at times by the fear of Chinese forces intruding one day into the island.
“I can’t avoid thinking sometimes that they would suddenly barge into our territory,” said Daisy Cojamco, a 51-year-old mother of three whose husband works as a town government employee.
Surrounded by white beaches, the tadpole-shaped Thitu Island is called Pag-asa — Tagalog for hope — by about 250 Filipino villagers.