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            [post_content] => Thitu Island, South China Sea. If the Filipinos on the remote South China Sea island of Thitu had binoculars, they might just be envious of how their neighbors on the next island live.

Just 24 kilometers across the shimmering sea from this rundown outpost of the Philippines lies a different world shown by an unbroken line of new, four-storey white buildings. Radar towers and a lighthouse complete Subi Reef, a mini city China has raised from the sea at an astonishing pace since 2013.

Subi symbolizes China's increasingly assertive claim to most of the South China Sea, a claim it reinforces in building manmade islands from dredged sand and equipping them with runways, hangars and surface-to-air-missiles.

For the 37 Filipino families who call Thitu their home, however, life is basic with just a few buildings, no television or internet, and no shops or street-side eateries.

There isn't even a street, just a dirt track used by the island's one vehicle – a small truck.

At only 0.37 square kilometers the coral-fringed Thitu, known to Filipinos as Pagasa, is the biggest of the eight reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago, 280 miles away from the mainland.

But Thitu's inhabitants have a strategic purpose – preserving a Philippine claim of sovereignty in the face of a resurgent China.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China will soon be capable of deploying fighter jets on three reefs, including Subi.

By comparison, Thitu's military muscle is a few dozen rotating troops with small arms, and a dirt runway through a patch of grass.

Jenny May Ray, 24, has taught for one year at the island's school. She says Thitu's residents are heroes.

"We should be thankful for their sacrifices for staying on an island far away from civilization, away from their loved ones and families and I hope some day, something can be written about them in our history," she said.

"Pagasa will see progress one day and they will not be forgotten because they have a big role in protecting the island."

Urgent Upgrades

But the islanders want more in return. Ray said the school needed improvements, the childrens' diets are poor, and they are short on books.

The Philippine government is wary of China's ambitions and knows life needs to be better for the Filipinos who get free food and housing in exchange for maintaining the four-decade Philippine occupation.

Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have communities in the Spratlys, but they enjoy far better living standards

Defense minister Delfin Lorenzana visited Thitu with journalists aboard a C-130 plane on Friday (21/04) to inspect sites earmarked for 1.6 billion pesos ($32.1 million) of development, including a small fishing port, a beaching ramp, desalination facilities, and runway repairs.

"You saw Subi Reef a while ago and we really lagged behind," he said.

"We are now the last. You saw Vietnam's [islands] when we passed by the area, it's already very built-up a long time ago. We should have done this before."

Lorenzana and a planeload of day-tripping troops and airmen joined villagers for a ceremonial raising of the national flag, a staple of daily life in the Philippines' most isolated village, where patriotism comes before anything else.

Within an earshot is a school of just over 30 children. A teacher leads fifth-grade students in reciting songs about their pride in Thitu belonging to the Philippines.

Change comes slowly on the island, in sharp contrast to China's activities. Since Reuters last visited Thitu two years ago, Subi Reef has transformed from a single building and cranes on an artificial sand bank to what looks look a forward operating base with its own town.

China insists these islands are for defensive purposes and objects strongly to planes or boats that come near them.

Lorenzana said his plane received a warning over the radio from Chinese on Subi as it approached Thitu.

He described it as "procedural."

Thitu islanders seem less concerned about China's military buildup than they do the storms that could delay the next boatload of supplies of food, or petrol needed for generators that support the tiny output from its few solar panels.

For many islanders, boredom is the biggest problem.

Daniel Yungot, an army private, says he plays a lot of basketball now.

"We entertain ourselves," he said. "We do anything just for the day to pass."

Reuters
            [post_title] => In Shadow of China's Reef City, Philippines Seeks Upgrade for Its Island Patriots
            [post_excerpt] => If the Filipinos on the remote South China Sea island of Thitu had binoculars, they might just be envious of how their neighbors on the next island live.
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            [post_content] => Thitu Island. If the Filipinos on the remote South China Sea island of Thitu had binoculars, they might just be envious of how their neighbors on the next island live.

Just 24 km across the shimmering sea from this rundown outpost of the Philippines lies a different world shown by an unbroken line of new, four-story white buildings. Radar towers and a lighthouse complete Subi Reef, a mini city China has raised from the sea at an astonishing pace since 2013.

Subi symbolizes China's increasingly assertive claim to most of the South China Sea, a claim it reinforces in building manmade islands from dredged sand and equipping them with runways, hangars and surface-to-air-missiles.

For the 37 Filipino families who call Thitu their home, however, life is basic with just a few buildings, no television or internet, and no shops or street-side eateries.

There isn't even a street, just a dirt track used by the island's one vehicle - a small truck.

At only 37 hectares the coral-fringed Thitu, known to Filipinos as Pagasa, is the biggest of the eight reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago, 280 miles away from the mainland.

But Thitu's inhabitants have a strategic purpose - preserving a Philippine claim of sovereignty in the face of a resurgent China.

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China will soon be capable of deploying fighter jets on three reefs, including Subi.

By comparison, Thitu's military muscle is a few dozen rotating troops with small arms, and a dirt runway through a patch of grass.

Jenny May Ray, 24, has taught for one year at the island's school. She says Thitu's residents are heroes.

"We should be thankful for their sacrifices for staying on an island far away from civilization, away from their loved ones and families and I hope some day, something can be written about them in our history," she said.

"Pagasa will see progress one day and they will not be forgotten because they have a big role in protecting the island."

Urgent Upgrades

But the islanders want more in return. Ray said the school needed improvements, the childrens' diets are poor, and they are short on books.

The Philippine government is wary of China's ambitions and knows life needs to be better for the Filipinos who get free food and housing in exchange for maintaining the four-decade Philippine occupation.

Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have communities in the Spratlys, but they enjoy far better living standards

Defence minister Delfin Lorenzana visited Thitu with journalists aboard a C-130 plane on Friday (21/04) to inspect sites earmarked for 1.6 billion pesos ($32.1 million) of development, including a small fishing port, a beaching ramp, desalination facilities, and runway repairs.

"You saw Subi Reef a while ago and we really lagged behind," he said.

"We are now the last. You saw Vietnam's (islands) when we passed by the area, it's already very built-up a long time ago. We should have done this before."

Lorenzana and a planeload of day-tripping troops and airmen joined villagers for a ceremonial raising of the national flag, a staple of daily life in the Philippines' most isolated village, where patriotism comes before anything else.

Within an earshot is a school of just over 30 children. A teacher leads fifth-grade students in reciting songs about their pride in Thitu belonging to the Philippines.

Change comes slowly on the island, in sharp contrast to China's activities. Since Reuters last visited Thitu two years ago, Subi Reef has transformed from a single building and cranes on an artificial sand bank to what looks look a forward operating base with its own town.

China insists these islands are for defensive purposes and objects strongly to planes or boats that come near them.

Lorenzana said his plane received a warning over the radio from Chinese on Subi as it approached Thitu.

He described it as "procedural".

Thitu islanders seem less concerned about China's military buildup than they do the storms that could delay the next boatload of supplies of food, or petrol needed for generators that support the tiny output from its few solar panels.

For many islanders, boredom is the biggest problem.

Daniel Yungot, an army private, says he plays a lot of basketball now.

"We entertain ourselves," he said. "We do anything just for the day to pass."

Reuters
            [post_title] => In Shadow of China's Reef City, Philippines Seeks Upgrade for Its Island Patriots
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            [post_content] => United States Vice President Mike Pence's recent Asian tour proves the old adage that "there's no such things as a free lunch."

Taking into account previous talks between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donand Trump on the fate of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP); the political discourses that developed out of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to the US and their effects on the future of European security — including the future of NATO; and Chinese President Xi Jinping's talks with Trump on furthering US-China partnership, it's quite clear that US foreign policy will now be negotiated on a country-to-country basis.

Pence's visit to Jakarta, apart from being carefully geared to secure US interests in Indonesia (primarily Freeport, though this was never made public), was also meant to convince the Indonesians that the Trump administration will not leave Asean on its own devices to handle regional security.

The Americans also showed they were still eager to make more trade and investment deals with Asean countries.

In response to the escalating tension in South China Sea, Pence reiterated the importance of the SCS Code of Conduct to defuse hostility between the conflicting parties.

In the end though, Pence refused to give guarantee to Asean countries, or to Japan and South Korea, that the US will intervene directly to curb North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's belligerent maneuvers.

Pence said the US will rely on China to put pressure on North Korea to put a stop to its weekly missile tests that have severely compromised regional security arrangements.

Trump is trying to persuade China to agree to a political and security deal: in return for helping the US keep the Korean Peninsula safe, the Americans promise they will do their best to wipe out trade deficit with China.

To Japan, the US is continuing to promise security guarantees, enhancing the existing US-Japan defense agreement by including a clause that says any attempt to strike Japan using nuclear weapons would be interpreted as a direct attack on the US.

In exchange, Trump wants Japan to open more opportunities for American trade and investment.

The US president is also pushing the same deal to the Europeans. Trump has clearly stated that European countries have to start paying up for defense costs that the US has been covering on its own. In other words, Europe needs to start digging deep into its pockets if it wants to keep NATO going.

During a meeting with Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, Pence put pressure on Indonesia to open up more market access for US merchandise and investment. In return, the US will help Southeast Asia's biggest economy maintain peace and security.

To sum up, US foreign policy under Trump shows a new forthrightness that disguises the same old story: a willingness to link economic ventures with security issues. The Americans are only too happy to be a world police, but only as long as its trade and investment partners are willing to pay for it.


Iskandar Hadrianto is a foreign policy analyst. He is a former senior diplomat and official at Indonesia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. A graduate of the Salzburg Diplomatic Academy and an alumni of the United Nations Leadership Academy, Iskandar has also worked for the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. 
            [post_title] => US Foreign Policy in South East Asia: There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
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            [post_content] => Tokyo. Sri Lanka will make sure no military activity is conducted at its ports, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in Tokyo on Wednesday (12/04), as China invests heavily in roads and harbors on the island nation.

Beijing, which is fortifying islands in the South China Sea to which it lays claim, has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars in Sri Lanka's infrastructure since the end of the country's civil war in 2009, when Colombo was shunned by Western investors over its human rights record.

"Sri Lanka hopes to become the regional hub of the Indian Ocean again," Wickremesinghe told a joint news conference following a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe. "We want to ensure that we develop all our ports, and all these ports are used for commercial activity, transparent activity, and will not be available to anyone for any military activity."

Wickremesinghe did not mention any specific countries.

China's investments in transportation infrastructure in Sri Lanka are considered part of its ambitions to build maritime routes to the oil-rich Middle East and on to Europe.

That makes some countries, including India and the United States, nervous. Sri Lanka sits near shipping lanes through which much of the world's trade passes on its way to China and Japan.

"The era of the Indo-Pacific is now being ushered in. Yet, however, true regional prosperity cannot come into being without the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific," Abe told the same news conference.

"To make this happen, it is indispensable for Sri Lanka to achieve sustainable growth as a hub, and develop ports that are open to all." 

Reuters
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                            [caption] => Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, right, and Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, left, attend a meeting at Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office in Tokyo, Japan April 12, 2017. (Reuters Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)
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            [post_content] => Manila. The Philippines will upgrade existing facilities on its inhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and not occupy new territories, adhering to a 2002 informal code in the disputed waters, defense and military officials said on Friday (07/04).

A statement from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's office on Thursday said he had ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals that the Philippines claims in the disputed waterway, asserting Philippine sovereignty in an apparent change of tack likely to anger China.

The firebrand leader, who on the campaign trail joked that he would jet ski to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea to reinforce Manila's claim, also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.

But defense and military officials have subsequently clarified the president's comments.

"The president's order was very crystal clear. Occupy only the existing areas that we claim," a navy commander, privy to development plans in the South China Sea, told Reuters on Friday.

"The Philippines is not allowed to do that, occupy new territories in the Spratly, based on the 2002 agreement," the navy official said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $5 trillion worth of seaborne goods passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.

The president's comments were made after he was briefed by defense and military brass about South China Sea developments in Palawan, according to his communications office. "What he really meant was the already-occupied areas," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters on Thursday.

Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said there were plans to only repair and upgrade facilities in the Spratly.

"The president wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water and sewage disposal systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for fishermen," Lorenzana said.

Another general, who also declined to be named, said there were development plans in the South China Sea in 2012, which included building a secured port on Thitu island, helicopter pads in three smaller islands, where troops are deployed.

But the plan, which also called for an increase in troop deployment in the occupied islands, was stopped after the Philippines in 2013 filed an arbitration case against China in The Hague.

The Philippines occupies nine "features," or islands and reefs, in the South China Sea, including a World War II-vintage transport ship which ran aground on Second Thomas Shoal in the late 1990s.

The United States State Department dec to ined comment on Duterte's remarks, but has in the past urged rival South China Sea claimants to lower tensions and resolve differences in accordance with international law.

Reuters
            [post_title] => Philippines to Upgrade Facilities, Not Occupy New Areas in Disputed Sea: Military
            [post_excerpt] => The Philippines will upgrade existing facilities on its inhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and not occupy new territories, adhering to a 2002 informal code in the disputed waters, defense and military officials said on Friday (07/04).
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                            [caption] => A Filipino soldier patrols at the shore of Thitu Island, in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, Philippines on May 11, 2015. (Reuters Photo/Ritchie B. Tongo)
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            [post_content] => Manila. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday (06/04) ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea, asserting Philippine sovereignty in an apparent change of tack likely to anger China.

The firebrand leader, who on the campaign trail joked that he would jet ski to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea to reinforce Manila's claim, also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.

"The unoccupied, which are ours, let's live on it," Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan, near the disputed waters.

"It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied. What's ours now, we claim it and make a strong point from there."

Duterte's plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, especially as it comes amid a fast-warming relationship in recent months.

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam contest all or parts of the South China Sea. This has led to confrontations between China and some of its neighbors over the strategic trade route.

Duterte's comments came just ahead of a first summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida on Thursday and Friday. China's pursuit of territory in the South China Sea will be among the pressing security issues on the agenda.

The US State Department declined comment on Duterte's remarks, but has in the past urged rival South China Sea claimants to lower tensions and resolve differences in accordance with international law.

Duterte announced his "separation" from the United States in October, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.

His efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, in themselves marked a reversal in foreign policy.

The Philippines occupies nine "features", or islands and reefs, in the South China Sea, including a World War II-vintage transport ship which ran aground on Second Thomas Shoal in the late 1990s.

Asia expert Bonnie Glaser at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said Duterte's remarks looked like "bluster" comparable to his jet-ski remarks. "Vintage Duterte. All bark, no bite," she wrote on Twitter.

"Duterte seems to be under greater domestic pressure and criticism on maritime issues," she added to Reuters. "I’m inclined to believe that his latest comment is driven ... by domestic politics."

Duterte said he might visit the island of Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-controlled islands in the Spratly archipelago, and build a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.

The Philippines marks its independence day on June 12.

Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratlys that China is accused of developing as military outposts.

Last month, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would strengthen its facilities in the Spratlys by building a new port and paving an existing rough airstrip.

Duterte said last month it was pointless trying to challenge China's fortification of its man-made islands and ridiculed the media for taking his jet-ski comments seriously.

"We cannot stop them because they are building it with their mind fixed that they own the place. China will go to war," he said.

Reuters
            [post_title] => Philippines' Duterte Orders Occupation of Isles in Disputed South China Sea
            [post_excerpt] => Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday (06/04) ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea, asserting Philippine sovereignty in an apparent change of tack likely to anger China.
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                            [caption] => Constructions are seen on Subi Reef in the Spratly islands, in the disputed South China Sea in this July 24, 2016 satellite image released by the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to Reuters on August 9, 2016. (Reuters Photo/CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)
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                            [title] => Satellite image by CSIS shows construction on Subi Reef in the Spratly islands, in the disputed South China Sea
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            [post_content] => Manila. China and Southeast Asian countries have made progress in talks on a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine acting foreign minister said on Tuesday (04/04).

China claims almost the entire waterway, through which about $5 trillion in sea-borne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

"We have made good progress on coming up with a framework for a code on conduct with China," Philippine Acting Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said, adding the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China were more than halfway through identifying the contents.

"From a scale of 1-10, we are at the upper level. Remember, we were starting from zero in January. There have been a number of elements agreed and we would definitely have a framework on which to embark a serious negotiation on a code of conduct."

Negotiators from China and Asean have met in Indonesia and Cambodia in the last two months to try to come up with a final draft, which could be approved ahead of the August meeting by Southeast Asian foreign ministers in Manila.

Manalo also said Manila would hold talks with Beijing next month to tackle "issues of concern regarding the South China Sea", including China's militarization of several manmade islands in the Spratly Islands.

The bilateral mechanism is one of two dialogues held by China with claimant states. The other is with Vietnam.

The United States, the Philippines and Vietnam have protested against China's militarization of the Spratlys.

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to discuss Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea when they meet on Thursday and Friday at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. 

Reuters
            [post_title] => China, Asean Make Progress on Framework Deal on Disputed Sea, Philippines Says
            [post_excerpt] => China and Southeast Asian countries have made progress in talks on a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea, the Philippine acting foreign minister said on Tuesday (04/04).
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            [post_content] => Hanoi. US President Donald Trump has written to Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to promote more cooperation between the two countries, the government website cited Quang as saying.

Vietnam and the United States had advanced ties to a new level under the Obama administration amid a dispute with China over South China Sea issues, while Trump has also expressed his hope for a stronger relationship.

Trump sent a letter to Quang "affirming his wishes to promote cooperation on economics, trade, regional and international issues", the Vietnamese government website said.

Quang made the remarks during a meeting with the US ambassador to Vietnam on Friday (31/03).

Quang emphasized that Vietnam welcomes US efforts to improve cooperation with countries in the region to maintain the freedom of navigation and aviation.

US Ambassador Ted Osius was reported as saying that Trump is considering attending the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Vietnam this year.

Vietnam had been expected to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal which Trump pulled the US out of in January, but Hanoi has also been building links with the United States amid a maritime dispute with China.

China claims most of the South China Sea, while Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei claim parts of the sea that commands strategic sea lanes and has rich fishing grounds along with oil and gas deposits.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said last month he was ready to visit the United States to promote ties, particularly trade. 

Reuters
            [post_title] => Trump Sends Letter to Vietnam's President to Promote Ties
            [post_excerpt] => US President Donald Trump has written to Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang to promote more cooperation between the two countries, the government website cited Quang as saying.
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                            [caption] => Donald Trump took power in January pledging to overhaul a global order that he said cheated middle-class Americans with a promise to tear up trade agreements and impose tariffs on China and Mexico.(Reuters Photo/Carlos Barria)
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            [post_content] => Manila. The Philippines said on Saturday (01/04) it was planning to change the name of a stretch of water east of the country in a bid to highlight its sovereignty over the area, which was surveyed recently by a Chinese vessel.

A Chinese survey ship was tracked for several months late last year moving around Benham Rise -- declared part of the Philippines' continental shelf in 2012 by the United Nations, stirring concern in Manila about Beijing's possible intentions.

China says the ship was simply passing through the area and was not engaged in any other activity, and the country's foreign minister said last week China fully respects the Philippines' maritime area rights over Benham Rise.

Manila said on Saturday it wanted to rename the area, which is roughly the size of Greece and believed by some scientists to be rich in biodiversity and tuna, "Philippine Rise".

"A motion has been made subject to the conduct of the requisite legal and logistical study to effect the change," presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement. The president ordered the foreign ministry and executive secretary's offices to study changing the territory's name to emphasize Philippine sovereign rights, he said.

Territorial rows with China have usually centered on the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who has sought a warm relationship with Beijing following years of territorial spats under the previous president, ordered the navy to put up "structures" in Benham Rise to assert sovereignty over the area.

He has come under pressure of late for what critics say is a defeatist stance, accusing him of turning a blind eye to China's island-building in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and its activities at Benham Rise. A Senate hearing this week revealed China sought permission two years ago to survey Benham Rise, but the request was rejected because it would not let Philippine experts take part. 

Reuters
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