Philippines Plans Low-Key Upgrades in Disputed Spratly Islands

The Philippines has found funding for the biggest in a series of infrastructure upgrades planned on the islets it holds in the contested South China Sea, a move that will gently remind other countries, including China, of Manila’s claims.

Money from the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Modernization Program will next year fund the paving of a 1,300-meter-long gravel and dirt runway on Thitu Island, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted saying this month. Thitu anchors Manila’s holdings in the Spratly archipelago, which is also disputed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.

The runway upgrade is expected to lead to repairs of barracks, water systems and other infrastructure on nine Spratly islets controlled by the Philippines per a pledge in April from the country’s president, Rodrigo Duterte. The 15-year Modernization Program hatched in 2012 has a budget of $2.56 million this year.

Manila’s upgrades would serve as a reminder, yet one unlikely to outrage other countries, that it intends to hold on to its nine Spratly features.

Beijing, the most aggressive claimant in those 100-plus islands as well as the broader South China Sea around them, has befriended the Philippines over the past year but only after years of diplomatic hostility that some Filipinos fear could resurface.

“I imagine there’s a feeling that the time has come to consider other options,” said Jonathan Spangler, director, South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei. “I just think it’s more like a hedging thing, like making sure you don’t go all the way in one direction.”

After China parked research vessels over an ocean plateau off the Philippine Pacific coast, Duterte faced public pressure to resist Beijing again. In April he vowed to upgrade the Spratly holdings.

Two months ago, a Chinese vessel apparently planted its national flag on Sandy Cay, which lies in the Philippine-controlled part of the Spratly chain, touching off more concerns among Filipinos….

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