MANILA – The Philippines is keeping vigilant in light of China’s “clear intent” to beef up its military presence in the South China Sea, particularly in a shoal located inside the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, according to classified Philippine government papers seen by Kyodo News.
“China has maintained a constant presence of at least two or three marine surveillance ships and a frigate in the vicinity of the shoal conducting surveillance patrol and illegal fishing,” the document said.
Pictures show Chinese navy ships operating in the area as well as fishing vessels loaded with giant clams and corals harvested from the shoal.
“All these activities are being done under the watchful eyes of Chinese government vessels,” the document said.
Since February, the Philippine military has noted an increase in sightings of Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels and Chinese navy ships in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, about 105 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines’ westernmost island province of Palawan.
The Philippine military says Chinese navy and government vessels have operated in the disputed area on 24 occasions from 2010 to 2012, nearly a threefold increase from 1995-2009.
Philippine security officials have vowed to protect the shoal at any cost.
China’s aggressive presence in the area, the Philippine government paper said, has prompted Manila to draw up a “contingency plan” for fear that China might resort to a blockade or even seizure of the shoal by force.
The contingency plan includes an “urgent upgrading” of the military’s equipment, naval and air assets that will boost the military’s capability in that part of the disputed sea.
“We do not want a repeat of Scarborough Shoal,” the document said, referring to China’s occupation last year of the shoal, a large coral reef located 124 nautical miles off the coast of Luzon Island, the main island of the Philippines.
China, Taiwan and the Philippines claim ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, north of the disputed Spratly Islands.
The submerged Second Thomas Shoal is part of a group of islands, rocks, reefs and cays known together as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed in part or in whole by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei.
Four claimant countries — China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — have stationed troops in the islands they control.
The Philippines has garrisoned troops on nine pieces of disputed territory, including Second Thomas Shoal.
“The persistent sightings of maritime law enforcement vessels in the shoal have been continuing in the past weeks,” the Philippine government document said.
Beijing has demanded that Manila remove a rusty, World War II-vintage landing ship it grounded on the shoal in 1999 that serves as an outpost for Philippine troops.
Lt. Gen. Rustico Guerrero, commander of the Philippines’ Western Command, said that while China has not shown signs that it will take over the shoal, the Philippine military is on the alert and closely monitoring the situation.
“Rest assured that we will not leave Ayungin,” he said, referring to the local name of Second Thomas Shoal. “We will maintain our detachments and outposts.”