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China eyeing deployment of military planes, missiles in South China Sea, says expert

In this April 21, 2017, file photo, Chinese structures and an airstrip on the man-made Subi Reef at the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philippine Air Force C-130. CSIS AMTI via DigitalGlobe, File

MANILA, Philippines — China is eyeing to deploy military aircraft and missiles on its artificially-constructed islands in the West Philippine Sea and continues with its building activities in the region, according to an international expert.

Gregory Polling, a fellow of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, said the installation of military equipment and hardware on those artificial features had become likely after Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidated power following the recently concluded twice-a-decade meeting of the Communist Party of China.

"They didn't build these hangers, so they can stand empty forever. Obviously they are going to use them," Polling said on the sidelines of the "ASEAN Leadership Amid a New World Order" forum in Makati City, noting that all these might be part of Beijing's consolidation of its gains in the past years.

He also disclosed that China had been continuing with its construction activities and its deployment of surface ships in the contested waters.

READ: As it engages Duterte, China keeps building in South China Sea

Although the spike in the number of surface vessels in the area has led to more run-ins with ships of other countries, they have basically improved the ability of China to project force, according to Polling.

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Polling's revelation directly contradicts the statement of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano during the conclusion of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Manila earlier this year that these activities had already ceased.

READ: Photos disprove China's claim of halting land reclamation

Cayetano used this supposed cessation of building activities as the reason why he didn't want to make a reference to the reclamation and militarization in the joint communique that the foreign ministers of ASEAN issued at the end of the summit.

"I didn’t want to include it. It’s not reflective of the present position. They (China) are not reclaiming land anymore," Cayetano said in August.

READ: Philippines admits wanting land reclamation, militarization out of ASEAN communique

Polling also urged parties to the West Philippine Sea dispute to start negotiating a binding Code of Conduct even without China, which he accused of dragging its feet on the issue for the past 15 years.

He said that the Chinese stance stemmed from the fact that not having a COC was beneficial to them. This, he added, was the reason why China just kept on saying that it was not yet ready to begin COC negotiations and had not yet indicated when it would be willing to do so.

He suggested that the Philippines and other parties to the dispute separate from the ASEAN process and negotiate a COC which they could later present to China.

"At least start a dialog, and stop letting the Chinese ignore the conversation altogether which is what they have done for 15 years as they have not put any ideas on the table," he said.

READ: ASEAN stresses self-restraint, non-militarization in South China Sea

President Rodrigo Duterte's rapprochement with China in the hopes of improving the situation in the West Philippine Sea had also not resulted in a significant benefit for Manila, Polling noted.

He said that Duterte's tack of forging closer and warmer relations with China, although for "understandable reasons," had resulted only in the return of some fishermen to the area.

Aside from that, noted Polling, nothing much changed as China continued to prevent oil and gas explorations in the area and harass Filipino fishermen and Coast Guard.

The promise of billions of dollars of investment is also questionable as only a small portion of this money will really be invested in the country, he said. This money was not worth it in exchange for any progress in the West Philippine Sea, he added.

"We need more creative solutions. It's time for ASEAN to stop waiting for China to change tone," he said.

Polling stated that the Philippines should aim for capacity-building and ensure that the Philippine Coast Guard and Filipino fishermen would be able to continue operating in the disputed waters.

"There's nothing we can do about the increase in the Chinese presence," he added.

READ: Palace on new Chinese dredger: We need to rely on good faith

On the diplomatic front, the Philippines and its partners should put "consistent pressure" on China and show it the cost of ignoring the ruling of a United Nations-backed tribunal last year invalidating most of its expansive claims.

He also chided the administration of US President Donald Trump who seemed to lack any strategy in dealing with Southeast Asia.

One source of this problem is the lack of experts on the region in the White House and the State Department and the "hyperfocus" of the administration on North Korea, he said.

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