There’s a new name in the South China Sea’s growing list of flashpoints: Thitu Island. While nowhere near the scale of Fiery Cross or Mischief Reefs, this island and bundle of low-lying sandbars off the Philippines coast is just as significant.
It’s a prosperous fishing spot. And it’s another potential territorial marker in the hotly contested international waterway.
Now, China has physically staked its claim over the sandbars that surround it.
Filipino fishermen say they are being driven away from their traditional fishing grounds, by Chinese boats.
LINE IN THE SAND
The waters between Thitu Island and Subi Reef, both of which are near the northwestern Philippines, have long been claimed as part of its territorial waters.
But, since 2015, China simply took over Subi Reef and used land-reclamation engineering to turn it into an enormous naval and air force fortress.
Beijing has recently staked a claim to almost the entire South China Sea, even though it extends far to the south and east of the mainland. It includes waters claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Now the Chinese Communist Party’s fishing ‘militia’ is pushing out its boundaries.
Mayor Roberto del Mundo of Kalayaan, a Philippines Palawan town which administers Thitu Island, has told Inquirer.net that his fishermen are being elbowed out.
Thitu Island itself is home to a Philippines slipway, jetty, runway and anchorage. But fishermen attempting to operate from there are being turned back as soon as they approach the nearest sandbar just 3km off the island’s coast.
“It means they (the Chinese) think they own it because they refuse to leave. If they’re just really fishing, they can leave for Subi Reef and then come back, but they no longer leave,” Del Mundo said.
“The presence of Chinese boats is now affecting our fishing activities. It wasn’t that way before. When our fishermen is about to get near Sandbar 3, that is really our fishing ground, a Chinese vessel would immediately come up to us to ward us off so we can’t come closer.”
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And he’s worried about the future of Thitu Island itself.
“On January 22 at 7 in the evening, I personally witnessed a helicopter that flew over the island. It did not flash a spotlight (searchlight) … It happened fast; it made a few rounds and then it left,” Del Mundo told the Inquirer.
“We were nervous because it might erupt into something. But we just stared at it until it left. It went towards (the Chinese fortress of) Subi Reef. It headed towards Subi because on the other side there’s nothing there.”
GAME OF ISLANDS
In 2017, China protested that the Philippines had breached an agreement not to occupy the sandbars with the construction of a ramshackle fisherman’s shelter.
The Philippine’s controversial President, Rodrigo Duterte, ordered his military to tear it down as part of his ongoing policy of appeasement towards Beijing.
This is despite the Philippines winning an appeal to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which had been instigated by President Duterte’s predecessor.
It found Beijing had no traditional or historical right to the South China Sea’s scattering of small islands and reefs. As such, the Philippines had territorial rights over the resources of the West Philippine Sea under the UN’s exclusive economic zone laws.
President Duterte, however, has not acted to assert the Philippines rights as defined by the ruling. He has openly stated he has no desire to upset his mighty neighbour by challenging its seizure of his country’s territory.
But now China’s fishing fleet and military-controlled coast guard have begun swarming around Thitu Island, many Filipinos are becoming restless.
Beijing has just declared a major increase in its defence budget.
Its stated purpose: “for safeguarding the sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of the country. It is not a threat to other countries,” congress spokesman Zhang Yesui said at this week’s Two Houses assembly of Chinese Communist Party members.
The problem is, other nations also consider parts of the South China Sea as key parts of their own sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.
China’s armed forces have undergone a thorough expansion and modernisation program in recent years, raising concerns among its neighbours.
China also claims ownership of East China Sea islands controlled by traditional rival Japan and threatens to attack self-governing Taiwan to take control of what it regardsas a breakaway Chinese territory.
President Xi Jinping has cast himself as an ardent nationalist and foreign policy hawk, protecting himself from accusations of being too soft toward the West.