During his presidential campaign in 2016, the Philippines leader made a surprising promise to his country as he aimed to challenge China in the South China Sea. He said: “I will ride a jet ski [to the Spratly Islands] while bringing the Philippine flag. I will plant the flag on the runway and tell the Chinese authorities, ‘Kill me.’” He made the statement in the same year that the Philippines launched a legal case against Beijing for its actions in the region.
In 2016, the Philippines won a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidating China’s claims to almost the entire stretch of sea. China does not recognise the ruling.
It referred to China’s Nine-Dash Line claim – under which Beijing claims ownership of 90 percent of the South China Sea’s waters.
Within this demarcation lies the Spratly Island chain – claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
The Spratly Islands form the epicentre of the complex disputes, as China occupies seven features, and has heavily militarised its portion of the archipelago.
Described by many as “island fortresses”, China has engulfed the South China Sea with man made island bases, and has been accused of forming them specifically for military purposes.
The moving of its aircraft carriers, airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
A leaked set of photos given to a Filipino newspaper showed just how elaborate China’s development of military bases has been.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which the newspaper said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multi-storey buildings that China has built on reefs.
President Duterte did not follow through on his promise to ride to the Spratly chain on a jet ski, and instead tried to quell tensions with China later that year.
The two nations have grown closer in recent years, but have a long history in the South China Sea.
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In 1994, China became embroiled in a confrontation by asserting its ownership of Mischief Reef, which was inside the claimed EEZ of the Philippines.
The US had stepped in to help the Philippines by building military bases in the country.
In 2016, the US reached an agreement with the Philippines to build five military installations located throughout the country.
The base which infuriated Beijing more than any other was the Antonio Bautista Air Base on western Palawan island, which faces the hotly disputed Spratly islands directly.
Last November, the US sailed its combat ship Gabrielle Giffords within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, located in the Spratly chain.
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