Commentary / World

The tiny island that's key to China's maritime ambitions

by Tobin Harshaw

Bloomberg

Nobody would ever call Thitu Island a Pacific Ocean paradise. The second-largest of the chain of reefs, shoals and atolls in South China Sea known as the Spratly Islands, Thitu is a sunbaked 37-hectare rock, dotted with scruffy trees and long-abandoned military bunkers, eking out existence just a few feet above high tide.

Yet obscure Thitu — known as Pag-asa (“Hope Island”) in the Tagalog language of the Filipinos who inhabit it — has become an object of desire in the increasingly contentious geopolitical dispute involving the Philippines, China and four of their Pacific Rim neighbors: Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. And, thanks to recent actions by the erratic Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, the island and its residents are increasingly vulnerable to China’s vast ambitions across the entire South China Sea.

Roughly 390 km from Palawan, the westernmost major island in the Philippines, Thitu has three things most of the Spratlys lack: fresh water; a year-round population (roughly 200, including many veterans and schoolchildren); and a crumbling concrete airfield about 1,120 meters long.

It also has a new neighbor. Starting in 2014, China began a land reclamation project 25 km to Thitu’s south at Subi Reef, which previously poked its head above water only at low tide. The Subi development, like half a dozen other Chinese constructions in the South China Sea, is a forward position in Beijing’s effort to control all the waters up to 1,930 km off its southeastern shores, to what it has long referred to as the “Nine-Dash Line” in the Pacific.

Ever since, China has become increasingly aggressive in the Spratlys. Three years ago, satellite photos released by a Filipino congressman, Gary Alejano, showed a flotilla of five Chinese fishing ships, coast guard vessels and frigates of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy within 5 nautical miles of Thitu.

“The Chinese may have a sinister plan to occupy sandbars just west of Pag-asa that belong to us,” Alejano said at the time. And don’t let the term “fishing ship” fool you. These craft and the military vessels supporting them are part of a vast maritime militia deployed across the South China Sea.

Things heated up in late 2018, when the Philippines began building a beaching ramp to allow the delivery of machinery for repairing Thitu’s airfield. Almost immediately, some 100 Chinese coast guard and fishing boats ringed the island in what amounted to a blockade.

In July 2019, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest after its national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon Jr., revealed that 113 Chinese fishing boats were again “swarming” off Thitu’s shores. In late February, Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana texted that Chinese vessels remain near the island, “varying in numbers.”

Is the Chinese presence legal? Maybe. If the Chinese development is considered a legitimate ocean feature, Beijing could make the case the vessels are operating within the territorial waters of both Subi and Thitu.

But that is somewhat beside the point. They appear part of a broader attempt by China to intimidate the Philippines into acquiescing to its territorial claims in areas where it hasn’t built any artificial islands. This includes the modest fishing boats. Whether the fisherman are ostensibly after traditional seafood such as tuna, exotic reef fish now on the menus at trendy restaurants or giant clams harvested for their valuable shells, they are often the tip of the spear for Chinese military adventurism.

In 2016, the Philippines won a monumental decision in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, prevailing on seven claims it put forward under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court even went beyond the Philippines complaints, saying that “China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea encompassed by the relevant part of the nine-dash line are contrary to the convention and without lawful effect to the extent that they exceed the geographic and substantive limits of China’s maritime entitlements.”

Unfortunately, what should have been a crushing blow to Beijing’s expansionist dreams turned into a little more than a slap on the wrist.

While it was expected that China would ignore the court finding, the Philippine government of Rodrigo Duterte has been utterly negligent in pushing his nation’s legal advantage. While, with great fanfare, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping last fall to discuss the matter, the summit was widely been derided as political theater, choreographed in advance to let Duterte save face. It failed at even that, based on his own spokesman’s summary: “President Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position.”

Duterte’s motives are transparent (and to some extent understandable): He is courting Chinese investment and trade to lift his nation’s sagging economy. While he has established a personal populist bond with U.S. President Donald Trump, he’s not dumb to hedge his bets at a time Washington is looking less and less dependable as a military ally for any of its treaty partners.

Some observers insist Duterte is cagily playing the U.S. and China off against each other. But Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says we should take the Philippine president at his word: “Duterte has consistently said he wants to sever the U.S.-Philippines alliance in favor of a strategic alignment with China, and he is willing to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea to make that happen.”

So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Duterte last month said he would abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which since 1999 has allowed American troops to work with and train Filipino forces, who are now putting down an insurgency led by an al-Qaida affiliate in the southern islands of the archipelago.

Fortunately, Duterte is limited to a single six-year term, and may be replaced by someone with a little more backbone in defending Filipino territorial rights. But for now, China has pretty much a free hand, and the immediate fear is that its forces will land, and perhaps build an installation, on one of Spratly islets now claimed by Manila.

That would be a replay of its actions in 2012 on Scarborough Shoal, two previously uninhabited coral islands 270 northeast of Thitu. The expropriation of Scarborough was at the heart of the international court’s ruling against Beijing.

Clearly, no matter how many legal victories its neighbors win, China will simply shrug them off and push toward the nine-dash line (and probably some other lines beyond it). Just as clearly, it isn’t a practical goal for the U.S. and its democratic allies to build a seawall against Chinese influence — military, economic or diplomatic.

The smaller nations of Asia will have to make accommodations with the new hegemon, and Washington will have to allow them some leeway. But Duterte is setting a dreadful example by rolling over so completely for China’s maritime expansion. And it’s his own citizens on Thitu who may pay the price next.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion.

Coronavirus banner