Could A Lighthouse Have Prevented South China Sea’s Latest Flashpoint?


After U.S. bases in the Philippines closed in the early ’90s, a lighthouse on Scarborough Shoal was meant to help protect the country from regional aggression. But that project was never completed.


Scarborough Shoal is little more than a bump in the South China Sea. China is eyeing it for an air base even though the shoal is also claimed by the Philippines, a U.S. ally. It’s a volatile mix that might have been avoided, as Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It’s 1995, and Jose Almonte has just watched Chinese ships occupy the disputed territory called Mischief Reef, about a 150 miles from the Philippines mainland. They put up a Chinese flag, an antenna and a couple of modest shacks, he says. And they insisted there was nothing to worry about.

JOSE ALMONTE: They told us it’s for fishermen. But I said yeah, that’s for fishermen. But fishermen in Chinese naval uniforms.

SULLIVAN: Almonte was the Philippines’ national security adviser at the time. And he wasn’t under any illusion the mischief at Mischief Reef was a one off. So he and his colleagues brainstormed about how they might check the Chinese advance.

ALMONTE: What can we do in terms of countering China? And the most that we thought we can do was to establish a lighthouse in Scarborough Shoal.

SULLIVAN: Yes, the same shoal that’s the current flashpoint in the dispute between China, its neighbors and the U.S. amid reports China may be considering building an airstrip there too. But back then, it was just another uninhabited speck of land even closer to Manila than Mischief Reef. And putting a lighthouse there, Almonte and his colleagues reckoned, would help cement Manila’s claim to the Shoal. So they built one.