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Philippine coast guard constructs new surveillance base in the South China Sea to monitor Chinese vessels

The Philippine coast guard is looking to counter China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the disputed South China Sea with a new monitoring base on Thitu Island, a remote island occupied by Filipino forces. The base was inaugurated on Friday.

Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano and other Philippine officials flew to Thitu Island and led a ceremony to open the newly constructed, two-story center that will have radar, ship-tracking and other monitoring equipment — either already installed or added early next year — to monitor China’s actions in the hotly disputed waters and other problems, including sea accidents.

The base was constructed as confrontations between Chinese and Philippine ships have intensified over recent months in the contested waters, including an alarming collision near the disputed Second Thomas Shoal occupied by a Filipino marine contingent in October.

“It’s no longer gray zone. It’s pure bullying,” Ano told reporters after the ceremony, describing the actions of Chinese ships. Later peering through a mounted telescope on the island, Ano said he spotted at least 18 suspected Chinese militia ships scattered off Thitu.

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The 91-acre island now boasts internet and cellphone connections, a more stable power and water supply, a newly cemented runway, a wharf, grade school, gymnasium and even an evacuation center in times of typhoons. However, Thitu is a meager frontier contrasted with the Chinese-built Subi island, more than 14 miles away.

Subi is one of seven mostly submerged reefs that China transformed starting about a decade ago into a missile-protected cluster of island bases in the South China Sea.

Dwarfed by China’s military might, the Philippines sought to expand the U.S. military presence in its local camps under a 2014 defense pact. It also recently launched joint sea and air patrols with the United States and Australia in a new deterrent strategy.

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China has warned that such joint naval patrols must not hurt its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests.” China has accused the U.S. of meddling in an Asian dispute.

Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last year, the Philippines has been deepening its security ties with Washington and U.S. allies like Japan and Australia in a major shift from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who had nurtured cozy relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin while criticizing Western security policies.

Beijing claims control over the strategic waterways, which are also used by various Pacific countries, and these high-seas faceoffs have fueled fears of a larger conflict that could involve the United States, an ally of the Philippines. Vietnam also claims control.

If Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea, the U.S. is obligated to defend it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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