Beijing has issued a stern warning to the Philippines over its recent announcement to bolster its military presence across disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Col. Wu Qian said on Thursday that China would “never allow” the Philippines to proceed with plans to upgrade installations on islands it controls in the contested region.
Whether or not to buy a ship is a matter for the Philippines, but anything that infringes on China’s sovereignty and security, and undermines regional peace and stability, China will never allow it,” Wu told reporters in Beijing.
The fiery rhetoric came in response to statements made earlier this week by Philippine military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., who said the country intends to upgrade nine military outposts in the South China Sea.
The plans include bolstering desalination facilities on the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded Philippine naval vessel that has been converted into a makeshift marine base on the Second Thomas Shoal. The shoal, called Ren’ai Reef by China, has become a flashpoint in the long-running maritime dispute.
Apart from upgrading equipment, the Philippines also wants to acquire more patrol ships and radar technology from regional allies. However, Wu dismissed the plans as a “betrayal of trust” that threatens regional stability.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most hotly contested regions, with China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan all having overlapping claims. The waters are a major global shipping route, with around $3 trillion in trade passing through them each year. They are also believed to hold vast untapped oil and gas reserves.
Much of the dispute between Beijing and Manila focuses on island chains like the Spratlys, known as the Nansha Islands in China. While the islands fall within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China says it has “indisputable sovereignty” based on historical rights.
In order to assert its claims, China has taken increasingly aggressive actions aimed at seizing control of islands occupied by the Philippines. This includes blockading and disrupting regular supply missions to these outposts by the Philippine government.
Despite having far fewer resources than China, the Philippines continues attempting resupply operations to meet its obligations under UNCLOS and maintain a legal basis for its claims. The government of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has also launched publicity campaigns criticizing China’s strongarm tactics.
Upgrading facilities on islands like Second Thomas Shoal is seen as a way for the Philippines to entrench its presence on disputed land features. However, Wu said any such actions undermine China’s rights and would not be tolerated.
The Philippines maintains that China’s claims across the South China Sea have no basis under international law. In 2013, it filed a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
In a landmark 2016 ruling, the tribunal sided overwhelmingly with the Philippines. It found that China’s ambiguous “nine-dash line” provides no legal basis for its claims to historic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea.
Beijing angrily rejected the ruling as “null and void”, refusing to abide by it. The decision remains a major source of friction between the two sides.
The United States has also backed the Philippines’ position under the Mutual Defense Treaty between the two allies. President Joe Biden has affirmed that the treaty covers attacks anywhere, including in disputed waters.
With China unwilling to budge on its stance, tensions remain high in the region. Upgrading military facilities appears aimed at bolstering the Philippines’ position on islands it already occupies, rather than taking over new territory.
However, Beijing is sending an unequivocal message that it will not tolerate any actions it deems to infringe on its claimed sovereignty, no matter how small. With both sides standing firm, the risk of miscalculation and escalation remains ever-present in this volatile dispute.