AN EPIC battle brewing in the South China Sea just went up a notch.
China is creating manmade islands on reefs in the region, which has ticked off neighbouring countries
The Philippines now plans to station fighter jets and frigates on a former US naval base facing the growing islands where it is engaged in a maritime row with China, a defence official says.
The flashpoint is a series of reefs 1400km from China’s mainland being dredged to create islands from what were previously reefs. China claims the sovereign right to do this.
But the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have a stake in the region.
Any militarisation of the reefs could trigger war between China and US if major shipping routes become restricted.
The move in the Philipines comes as Japan also slammed Beijing’s bid to reclaim land as a “coercive attempt” to force sweeping maritime claims, in a defence paper that comes as Tokyo is expanding the role of its own military.
Tokyo said China was acting “unilaterally and without compromise”.
The white paper accused Beijing of “raising concerns among the international community”.
“China, particularly over maritime issues, continues to act in an assertive manner, including coercive attempts at changing the status quo, and is poised to fulfil its unilateral demands without compromise,” said the report entitled “Defense of Japan 2015”.
Meanwhile, the Philippines plans to set up a base in Subic Bay, about 200km from a shoal off the northern Philippines, controlled by Chinese forces.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines “will use portions of Subic for the new assets coming in, like the FA-50 (jets) and the new vessels that are arriving”, the defence department’s public affairs chief, Arsenio Andolong, said on Monday.
“They (the Subic facilities) are ideal: it has a deep-water port, the runways are perfect for the FA-50,” he added.
Manila last week said it would reopen Subic Bay — one of the US’s largest overseas bases until it was shut down more than two decades ago — and station Filipino military assets there for the first time.
Mr Andolong said the military has leased part of Subic Bay for 15 years and planed to use it as a base for new equipment that would be bought over the next few years as part of a modernisation program.
The first pair of a dozen FA-50 fighter jets were scheduled to be delivered this year and the other 10 would arrive within two years, he added. The military is still evaluating from where to acquire two new frigates.
Subic Bay serves as a commercial port and tourist site facing onto the South China Sea, where China is locked in a dispute with the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan over conflicting territorial claims.
Andolong said the South China Sea dispute was “one of the considerations that was envisioned when the (lease agreement) was signed”.
He also said the “proximity” to Scarborough Shoal — a rich fishing ground that was occupied by Chinese ships after a stand-off with the Philippines in 2012 — was another.
The Philippines has been building up its weak military and improving defence ties with close ally the US as its territorial dispute with China has increased.
Deputy dean of global studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Professor Joseph Siracussa, previously told news.com.au China was “spoiling for a fight” and an eventual war in the region was inevitable.
“Once you militarise a problem, you don’t get a diplomatic solution,” he said.
“The trigger is there, it’s just waiting to happen.
“This will happen. This is about power.
“The South China Sea has become a flashpoint for war.”