A small cove inside Ulugan Bay already harbors a small and run-down naval base. It is where the Philippine Navy’s two refurbished U.S. cutters, the pride of the fleet, are usually moored between deployments.
A plan to build the new base within five years was signed when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Manila in early 2014, and it was seen as suitable location for joint operations with the U.S. military for the Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), amid Obama's declared "pivot" to Asia, a reassurance Manila needed almost desperately as China began laying its hands on the sea.
But the Supreme Court is currently assessing whether the plans are unconstitutional for having bypassed approval by Congress and using funds that may be ring-fenced for other purposes. Military thinkers remain optimistic, though, believing a killer argument is the increased capability it could offer in the South China Sea power play.
The idyllic Ulugan Bay base used to be a post for commanders heading into retirement. That has changed since China began its expansionist policies in the South China Sea, pushing the Philippines to the international court in The Hague for a decision under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas on sovereignty over the Spratly chain of more than 750 islands, reefs and atolls, 45 of which are inhabited.
With China’s astonishing creation within a year of land with military-like structures at seven reefs, the threat has landed suddenly at Manila's doorstep, with the potential of cutting-off of supply routes and endangering a natural gas platform that provides 30 per cent of power to Luzon, the Philippines' main island.
The military’s Western Command is now at the front line and has had to step up its “operational tempo,” as one officer said, working to shape international opinion ahead of the court decision next year.
They must counter China's varied tactical challenges, which they say slyly combine threats and opportunities, strengths and weaknesses. “They understood war ahead of everyone. How do we fight an old civilization? How to we fight a grandfather?”
One answer is trying to get a firmer commitment from the U.S. The Philippines' ally had kept its distance from the dispute until aerial photos recently exposed China’s build-up and prompted the U.S. Navy to call on China to stop.
The EDCA is meant to run for ten years, giving the U.S. wider access to seaports and airfields and allowing more troop rotation and sharing of facilities. It is a partnership extended from a previous one in combating terrorism in Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines.
Internal wars had until recently preoccupied the Philippine military, which had neglected modernization and defence reforms over the years and was also freighted with corruption and outdated procurement rules.
The most promising undertaking would have been a coast watch system in the archipelago’s critical and strategic waters, but that too has floundered.
Some military analysts say it is now a waiting game, and a priority should be procuring drones to keep watch beyond Palawan’s shores, to make sure the islands and reefs occupied by the Philippines remain unthreatened.
First published in The Edge Review.
Life Under the Glare of Chinese Territorial Ambitions
Most primary-school children of Pag-Asa, the faraway island claimed by the Philippines in the middle of the South China Sea, say they want to be in the Coast Guard when they grow up. That's understandable. They are only aping their teachers, two young men dressed in the impressive uniform of the Philippine Coast Guard.
Their youthful zeal strikes a symbolic resonance in the 37-hectare island, whose Tagalog name means "hope," where a tiny community has nestled for decades before China lit an international spark with territorial claims the length of the South China Sea. Its rapid building of artificial islands in the disputed Spratly chain is setting off alarm bells across the Philippines.
Day to day, though, there is little else to occupy the Coast Guard officers here. They volunteer to teach a dozen or so children in a small, donated prefabricated school, rotating every three months. Their sub-station has an aluminum speedboat parked under the shade of a tree, belying any sense of urgency.
Out from the coral-ringed shore are hazy outlines of huge fishing boats from either Vietnam or China, they reckon, and that to them is normal.
To the children, the Vietnamese are friends and the Chinese are not. That’s what they have seen on cable television in the evenings when electricity is available. That’s what they have heard from their parents, who talk of China’s rapid island-building in the waters around them. They don’t quite know what it means, and the idea of a full-scale conflict seems unreal, for now.
Once, the Philippines had been ahead of the game by staking its claim to this island, known to the outside world as Thitu, the second-largest in the Spratly chain. Thanks to a self-styled admiral who claimed the territory in the 1970s (honored with a bronze bust near the island's flagpole), the Philippines is on the frontlines against China’s expansionism.
In the possible beginnings of a cold war, policymakers in Manila see Pag-Asa as a winning point, an occupation made effective by law, the legacy of a historical strategy suddenly relevant in today’s geopolitics.
“It is not just about putting military boots on the ground,” said one. “At the end of the day, it’s what you occupy that is yours.”
The build-up of a settlement on the island -- it can hold about 120 people -- started in the late 1990s. People from the rural fringes of Palawan, the nearest island province 285 nautical miles away, were recruited to replace a military population with civilians.
They didn’t mind the isolation. An estimated 25 families lived like castaways but were otherwise provided with rice, free electricity and filtered water. Some were given houses made of split-bamboo pallets. Most importantly, there was a school for their children. These were privileges they would have had to fight for back home.
They have a stripped-down airport with a tower, a municipal hall, police station, health center (with no doctor) -- all standing side by side in box-like structures. Everything must be run from the central government's budget of about 52 million pesos (US$1.15 million), a figure that has risen by about three percent a year for the past two decades.
Mayor Eugenio Bitoonon lately has been dreaming of turning Pag-Asa into a tourist haven, as Malaysia has done at Swallow Reef, off the coast of Sabah; or a marine fisheries zone where groupers, clams and sea cucumbers profitable in the international market are bountiful.
But it's easier said than done. The ice plant stopped working a while ago and the new solar panels are in need of repair. “I’ve been saying this for the past five years, and look at China -- they’ve done what they wanted to do just yesterday. They’ve reached their vision beyond our imagination and here we are, the world is waiting for us.”
Bitoonon recalls with a shudder his convoy of wooden boats nearly being rammed a few years ago by a Chinese warship maneuvering toward the nearby Subi reef that China had occupied. As the latecomer on the scene -- the Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Malaysians having previously claimed most of the reefs -- China's rapid reclamation on seven reefs in one year has ominous overtones.
But the islanders' health is the biggest headache, says Mary Joy Batiancila, the municipal administrator. “This is our biggest challenge, not China, not our military facing their military.” The most recent scare has been an outbreak of diarrhea, for which a Navy doctor had to be flown in.
Batiancila is in a hurry to get on a two-hour flight back to Palawan for more supplies. If she misses it, she would have to endure three days chugging in a 32-meter wooden-hulled boat.
On Pag-Asa, life is always slow. Workers building a concrete performance stage by the mini-plaza -- a cultural fixture indispensable in every Philippine town -- say they’ve been at it off and on for four months, as the delivery of materials allows. Once it’s done, though, there will be much singing to stave off the loneliness; one wonders how the Chinese will take that.
First published in The Edge Review.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
More articles by Criselda Yabes