Satellite photos show early phases of 'major' Chinese construction on Subi Reef

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 25) — China appears to be laying the groundwork for massive construction on Subi Reef, a Beijing-occupied feature in the West Philippine Sea, according to satellite images released by US-based tech firm Simularity.

Photos taken between November 6, 2020 and March 7, 2021 showed changes on Subi Reef, locally known as Zamora Reef, located just 13 nautical miles away from Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, seat of the municipal government of Kalayaan under Palawan province.

"The volume of changes is significant, and may indicate the early phases of major construction on Subi Reef," Simularity said in a 15-page report sent to CNN Philippines on Thursday.

The company has been monitoring developments in the disputed South China Sea, which includes areas Manila claims as part of the West Philippine Sea, through its artificial intelligence software and own group of analysts.

The company flagged "possible construction preparation" in at least three sites, while photos from five other areas point to agriculture preparation, island repair, or land reinforcement.

"Changes in the areas noted are mostly land-related reshaping or reconfiguration. The areas of loose, white, bulk material are probably sand," the report noted.

Within the four-month monitoring period, some 2,244 shipping containers were also removed from Subi Reef, indicating "significant movement of materials and supplies," the report added.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan and Vietnam are also claiming Subi Reef. In 2016, the arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled that Subi Reef falls within the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island, but did not address the question on which country has sovereignty over these areas.

It stressed, however, that China's island-building activities on Subi Reef and six other reefs constitute violations to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

This landmark decision invalidates China's sweeping claim over the South China Sea. It is considered a victory for the Philippines as the tribunal also recognized areas within its exclusive economic zone that China contests. But Beijing rejects the ruling.

Malacañang on Thursday said President Rodrigo Duterte raised the arbitral win in a recent meeting with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, along with the presence of over 200 Chinese fishing and maritime vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, in the West Philippine Sea.

The Department of Foreign Affairs sent a diplomatic protest and demanded China to "promptly withdraw" its vessels from the country's EEZ, while the Armed Forces of the Philippines deployed more naval units to the area.

CNN Philippines' David Santos contributed to this report.