Vertical structures built on reefs in S. China Sea — Inquirer reporter

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This story was updated to include statements from Sen. Bam Aquino and Sen. Francis Pangilinan.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 6) — New vertical structures were built on the disputed reefs in South China Sea, the reporter behind the photographs released by the Inquirer.net and Philippine Daily Inquirer said Tuesday.

In an interview on CNN Philippines' Balitaan, Inquirer's Frances Mangosing said the photos, which came from a source, confirm the structures captured by American think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in 2017.

"'Yung mga facilities na identified doon, ay madali mo ring maka-counter check. Tapos makikita doon 'yung tatlong biggest reefs, may runways na, may facilities na," she said.

[Translation: It's easy to countercheck the facilities identified in the photograph. There you will see that the three biggest reefs already have runways and facilities.]

The photos in the story were taken from June to December 2017, and showed the development of air and naval base structures on the reefs.

Mangosing added Kalayaan town Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon also saw the ongoing militarization on the three large reefs -- Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief), and Zamora (Subi) -- when he flew over the area with foreign journalists nearly two years ago.

"Napansin niya 'yung mga bagong vertical structures," Mangosing said of Bito-onon, whose town is on Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island), the largest Philippine-occupied island in the Spratlys.

According to the AMTI, there was extensive construction on Kagitingan in 2017, covering 27 acres. Airstrips have been completed, and a communications/sensor array was built on the northeastern part, while hardened shelters for missile platforms were discovered on the south. 

New facilities on Zamora Reef and Panganiban Reef included new hangars and missile shelters, the AMTI reported.

Mangosing pointed out that the construction should be a cause of concern due to their proxmity to the country.

Panganiban is within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while Kagitingan is just outside the country's EEZ. Meanwhile, Zamora Reef is 18 miles off Pag-asa.

On Monday, the Palace said the only way to prevent the militarization in the contested waters is through friendly ties.

READ: Palace: Friendly ties will prevent China from using arms in islands vs PH

"Whether or not we like it, they intended to use them as military bases. So, what do you want us to say?" Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said.

Roque also said the Philippines is relying on China to continue informing the country on activities in the contested waters.

Some lawmakers, however, have expressed concern over China's presence in disputed waters.

"While their war ships are in our seas, we continue to give in to their whims and, all the while, we are kept in the dark as to our government's dealings with China," Senator Bam Aquino said.

He added the Senate must act on a resolution filed in September 2016 to  investigate the country's foreign policy direction, particularly with China.

Senator Francis Pangilinan likewise hit Malacañang's "nonchalant attitude" in playing down the militarization in the South China Sea.

"It disturbs every Filipino to hear the Malacañang spokesman relying on China's mere words that it would not reclaim new islands, thus, we can sleep soundly at night," he said. "It's like telling Filipinos not to worry because while China constructed a building, it would only stay on the ground floor."

He said the government shouldn't make the Permanent Court of Arbitration's 2016 arbitral ruling "a mere paper victory," referencing the international tribunal's ruling favoring the Philippines in a case against China's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea.

READ: What you need to know about the Arbitral Tribunal's ruling