This week the Philippine defense secretary predicted China would start building an artificial island on the bones of Scarborough Shoal.
If unopposed, China would likely attempt to build an installation like the several bases Beijing has constructed in the Spratly Island chain to the south of Scarborough, Delfin Lorenzana said in a Tuesday interview with AFP.
“If we allow them, they will build,” he told the wire. “That’s very, very disturbing. Very much (more) disturbing than Fiery Cross because this is so close to us.”
Unlike the other installations in the Spratlys, Scarborough is less than 200 miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon and within striking distance of several facilities that hosts rotational American forces. The Chinese have been in de facto control of the feature since 2012 and have intermittently patrolled the shoal with Chinese Coast Guard cutters and boats.
“That could be their strategy, to counter any superpower that would encroach on South China Sea because they believe South China Sea is – that’s like their lake to them – theirs,” Lorenzana said. “They occupied three islands there, plus they are trying to get Scarborough. So to us that is unacceptable”.
According to the report, Lorenzana didn’t give a time frame to when the Chinese might make an attempt to rebuild the island. A U.S. defense official told USNI News on Thursday there was no evidence China was moving land reclamation assets into the region near Scarborough Shoal.
People’s Liberation Army troops patrol an island in the South China Sea. PLA Photo
Still, there is concern that expansion of the shoal could include infrastructure to either project Chinese power close to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone or an intelligence, surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) network that could route information on U.S. forces operating at local installations. The position of the Chinese at Scarborough prompted the government of former Philippine president Benigno Aquino to seek U.N. arbitration for the seizure, which invalidated many of China’s claims to the South China Sea.
“A modern Scarborough airfield with radar and other modern ISR facilities so close to Philippine bases where U.S. has been granted rotational access by the Philippine government possess obvious strategic issues,” retired Rear Adm. Mike McDevitt, a senior fellow with CNA in Arlington, Va., told USNI News on Thursday.
He said Lorenzana’s comments could be a trial balloon to gauge U.S. reaction in intervening if China made a move at Scarborough following Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ assurance to the Japanese that the U.S. would protect the Senkaku Islands under the existing mutual defense treaty.
“But by its actions last year, the Obama Administration gave every indication that it considered Scarborough as very important and by implication might be willing to change the ‘take no position’ policy when it came to Scarborough,” McDeviit said. “Why not see if Washington would be willing to send the same deterrent signal regarding Scarborough?”