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Analysts refute claim that Aquino admin triggered sea row

FILE - In this Friday, April 21, 2017, file photo, an airstrip, structures and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane of the Philippine Air Force. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano flew to the island of Pag-asa in the South China Sea on Friday, drawing a protest from China, which also claims the remote territory. AP/Bullit Marquez, File

MANILA, Philippines — The arbitration case that the Philippines filed before an international tribunal might have affected China's actions in the South China Sea but did it did not trigger the island-building.

The camp of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has claimed that the arbitration case filed by the Aquino administration pushed Beijing to build artificial islands in the contested waters.

Estelito Mendoza, a Marcos-era solicitor general and Arroyo's lawyer, even claimed that it was relatively quiet and peaceful in the South China Sea during the Arroyo administration.

READ: Fact check: No tension in South China Sea during Arroyo administration?

Several experts have agreed that China had been planning the militarization of the South China Sea even before the Philippines filed an arbitration case before a United Nations-backed tribunal in 2013.

De La Salle University Professor Renato De Castro said that China's actions in the South China Sea were not directed against the Philippines or the Aquino administration in particular.

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"They already had it in mind that's why the purpose, of course, of having control of those features in the South China Sea is to transform them into artificial islands that could be facilities wherein they could conduct reconnaissance," De Castro said in a forum organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute on Tuesday.

De Castro added that China's plan of installing surface-to-air missiles in the South China Sea might have been planned as early as the mid-1990s in the aftermath of the Taiwan Strait crisis, when China test-fired missiles in waters surrounding Taiwan.

The US responded by sending two carrier battle groups and an amphibious assault ship to the region.  The USS Nimitz and her escorts as well as the amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood sailed across the Taiwan Strait.

'Philippines just a subset' 

Foreign policy analyst Richard Heydarian agreed that the Chinese strategy in the South China Sea was not determined by Philippine actions.

"The Philippines is just a subset of a broad range of elements that have pushed China to be more assertive in that part of the world," Heydarian said.

Heydarian said that claiming that the Aquino administration triggered China's island-building in the disputed waters is "another form of historical revisionism."

"It's just that unfortunately it seems our allies in Washington were completely caught off guard. If you look at the statements by the American officials... they never thought that Chinese are capable of pulling off what many see as geoengineering on steroids," Heydarian.

De Castro, however, said that the Americans were not caught off guard. They took China for granted as they only saw the Spratly Islands as targets for naval aviation of the US Seventh Fleet.

"They were aware but they basically underestimated the capabilities (of China)," De Castro said.

'Arbitration case accelerated island-building'

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said that the arbitration case accelerated China's construction timetable in the disputed waters.

The Chinese saw the case as part of the US "pivot to Asia" strategy that may end their occupation in the islands.

"They thought that it would be the way by which the US, with the Philippines, would eject or evict the Chinese from the South China Sea," Batongbacal said.

Defense Analyst Jose Custodio added that China spent the first decade of the 21st century in building up their capabilities in the South China Sea.

"It was a decade that we missed out on... That's why when the Aquino administration came in, it was at the perfect event that the Chinese already had the capabilities to protect their fishermen and to assert their presence in the South China Sea," Custodio said.

Custodio added that China has also been building up their maritime capabilities and their coast guard during the past decade.

"The past decade was an opportunity for the Philippines and now when the new administration took over, when the Aquino administration took over, it felt the full brunt of China's capabilities that it had created in the previous decade," Custodio said.

The international tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands had ruled that China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea does not have legal basis. It also ruled that Beijing violated its commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed waters.

The Duterte administration said that they would raise the arbitration award with China when the "appropriate time" comes.

RELATED: Del Rosario urges gov't: Don't wait for 'better time' to assert arbitral award

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