As China pursues its expansionist ambitions in Asia, notably in the contested South China Sea region, an Australian defense and security expert has suggested to the Philippine government to build a military base on one of the islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago.

But will the current administration have enough guts to do this?

In a recent online interview, Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Defense Force Academy, stated setting up a military base on Thitu (local “Pag-asa”) island would be a clear demonstration of the country’s sovereignty over the region. Likewise, send a strong message to China that their aggressive subjugation presence in the area is “unacceptable behavior.”

The biggest of the Kalayaan Island Group, “Pag-asa” Island, is administered by the Kalayaan municipality in Palawan province. It is home to around 400 Filipinos and is 277 miles (445 kilometers) west of Puerto Princesa City and approximately 579 mi (932 km) from the capital city. It is also 30 km (18.6 mi) from China’s military base on its manmade island in Subi Reef.

Disputed Spratly Islands
Map of the overlapping territorial claims over the South China Sea (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Thayer, moreover, urged Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to strengthen the country’s military cooperation with Australia, Japan, and the United States—suggesting that work be done on expanding treaties and developing diplomatic procedures for dealing with the increasing presence of the Chinese Coast Guard and naval militia vessels in the disputed region.

“It is imperative that signatories of these treaties clarify and present the same position to China that this is unacceptable behavior,” Thayer said.

Thayer highlighted the treaties, including the Philippines’ Mutual Defense Treaty, the Status of Forces Agreement, and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US, which could significantly boost maintaining a solid defense and deterrence against China.

He explains that these compacts would allow the Philippine armed forces, mainly its Navy and Coast Guard, to visit and conduct maritime patrol around the disputed region frequently. Furthermore, enable allies to run naval drills and other military activities.

While bolstering cooperation might appear “provocative” to China as it threatens its “illegal occupation” in the region, staying neutral is not a hopeful option either.

“There is no ground for neutrality … Don’t trust Chinese intentions,” Thayer added.

This is not the first time defense and security experts have proposed the notion, and it has, in fact, become a recurring matter since China began constructing its military sites on artificial islands around the Spratly archipelago.

Staying silent and lacking firm action from the Philippine government has enabled China’s expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea almost without wielding much effort despite receiving tons of objections from Filipinos, endangering its sovereignty and the security of its allies in the Pacific.

Australia on High Alert, China’s Aerial Targeting Poses ‘Significant Threats to Peace and Stability’

Read Next: Australia on High Alert, China’s Aerial Targeting Poses ‘Significant Threats to Peace and Stability’

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) – Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China has installed about seven outposts in the Spratlys, including the Scarborough Shoal, which it seized through a naval blockade in 2012. It also established 20 more outposts in the neighboring Paracel Islands.

So far, the current Marcos administration has made pertinent efforts to address the growing tension, starting with the update on the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which now granted Washington access to four more military bases.

With this, the US has a more expansive presence in the Philippines, allowing its armed forces to rotate in more military camps across the archipelago—a decision that was a complete 180 from the stagnant response of the previous administration under President Rodrigo Duterte, who feared offending Beijing.

Shortly after, Philippine maritime patrol increased in the area, which led to a brief provocation coming from a Chinese coastguard vessel, which began aiming its “military-grade laser” at one of Manila’s ships that supporting a resupply mission for troops posted in Second Thomas Shoal (local “Ayungin” Shoal).

It also targeted fishing boats near Scarborough Shoal, which immediately left after feeling “intimidated” by the laser light. While no warning shots nor physical confrontation were made, reports said that some crew members from the Philippine boat were temporarily blinded by the laser light.

The incident nudged the Philippine government to cooperate with Australia and Japan in conducting naval patrols with the US.

Once talks are settled, the initiative will be the first joint multilateral maritime patrol in the South China Sea for Manila and will surely anger Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Philippines and the United States began their largest-ever joint military exercises on Tuesday, with 17,600 troops from both nations participating in a series of war simulations that will last through April 28.

Balikatan 23
US Navy Sailors assigned to Amphibious Construction Battalion 1 unloads boxes of water in preparation for Balikatan 23 in Casiguran, Philippines, on March 23, 2023. (Image source: DVIDS)

Australian forces will also partake in the activities, which will be held in Ilocos Norte, Aurora, Zambales, Palawan, and Antique—mostly facing the West Philippine Sea.

The 38th annual joint drill, dubbed the Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercise, seeks to improve interoperability among partners as well as their various maritime deterrent and security capabilities in the area.

It will also include training on amphibious, urban, and aviation operations and responses to counterterrorism, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief operations.