Philippine Air Force C-130 cargo planes are set to return to the South China Sea this week to resume resupply missions to islands under Manila’s control, officials said Monday.
The mission has been on hold since May 2016, when a Chinese fighter jet intercepted a Philippine Marine C-130 flying from the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
The Philippines’ decision to resume flights to the disputed Scarborough Shoal was largely driven by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s desire to restore bilateral relations with China, analysts said.
“We are obviously going to resume the resupply missions” to Scarborough Shoal, said Rear Adm. Joseph A. Pama, a Philippines Air Force officer. “We’ve waited this long. We should be able to solve this issue.”
Clarence Peters, a Philippine political analyst, said that instead of resuming the resupply mission, the Philippine military could focus its limited air power on areas where they could more effectively conduct maritime surveillance.
“The Philippine military will be focusing on the South China Sea and not Scarborough Shoal,” he said. “The Air Force will be relying on other air assets” such as warplanes.
Philippine Marines patrol near the Scarborough Shoal, about 125 miles off the west coast of Luzon, after China denied passage in its ships through the shoal for the first time in 2016. (Melinda Gauvin / Maritime Law Center)
The shoal off the west coast of Luzon has been a sensitive issue for three years. Before a Philippine Marine C-130 arrived there in May 2016, Chinese fighter jets intercepted two Philippine C-130s for the first time. Since then, Chinese ships have often blocked flights to the shoal, despite the presence of multinational forces established by Philippine Supreme Court in April 2016.
The Chinese government has rarely discussed the shoal since the Supreme Court’s ruling, and a top-level meeting held recently had no mention of the shoal. But China repeatedly has said that it will not withdraw its naval forces from the region because it is a matter of sovereignty.
“We will continue on the right path,” said Cui Baohua, a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Committee, which is responsible for looking out for the country’s interests in international forums.
Such statements could be interpreted by the Philippine government as a move to avoid serious confrontation with China over the shoal, Peters said. “The Chinese side would like to avoid any controversy over Scarborough Shoal, but it’s not going to budge,” he said.
On Dec. 17, Chinese warships left for the South China Sea, where Chinese vessels are expected to conduct drills in international waters. Philippine jets, meanwhile, remain on standby in Manila to perform “routine escorts” of C-130s if needed, Pama said.
The South China Sea dispute concerns territory in the East China Sea, a narrow body of water where China and five other nations have overlapping claims. The United States and its Asian allies have criticized China’s land reclamation activities there and deployment of military vessels in contested waters.
Duterte has adopted a more accommodating stance to China since he came to power, which has boosted the economy and given China’s government a stronger foothold in the country. Chinese companies have bought $14 billion in investments and land in the past year.
With the resumption of the resupply mission, the Philippines will be sending out a clear message that it is an island nation and a rising Asian power, Peters said.
“It’s a further reinforcement of the fact that we’re a military power as well,” he said.