China’s deployment of a large fleet of vessels to the Philippines-held Thitu Island in the South China Sea is aimed at blocking the country’s construction of military facilities on the disputed island in the Spratly chain because it is concerned that the United States will be able to use such facilities, diplomatic observers said.
The two countries have been involved in a diplomatic stand-off over an increased presence of about 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu island from January to March.
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The flare-up coincided with the two-week US-Philippines annual Balikatan exercise, which is taking place until Friday.
The US sent an amphibious assault ship – the USS Wasp, capable of carrying fighter jets such as the F-35B – to join the drills for the first time. They were held near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, seized by China from the Philippines in 2012.
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In December, the Philippine government announced that a new beaching ramp on Thitu was under construction and that it had plans for military barracks and runway repairs.
Xu Liping, a director for Southeast Asia studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, agreed with the suggestion that the US military could use those facilities after the repairs and upgrades.
“US warships could sail near the island and fighter jets could land or take off from the runway, directly threatening the safety of China’s island reef outposts in the Spratly Islands,” Xu said.
He said that China’s decision to send vessels near the island was a “mild warning” that the Philippines’ heavy construction of infrastructure is a challenge to Beijing’s wish to maintain the island’s status quo.
Thitu – or Pagasa, as it is called in the Philippines – is the largest of the nine features occupied by the Philippines and is home to about 100 civilians along with a small military garrison. It also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.