CONSTRUCTION at Pag-asa (Thitu) Island will start next month, according to Defense Secretary Lorenzana who flew to the Philippine-administered island and was “challenged” at least four times by the Chinese over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Citing China’s extensive construction at Zamora (Subi) Reef, Lorenzana said the improvement in Pag-asa was long overdue.
“We should have done this before but we had a moratorium because we filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA),” Lorenzana told reporters in a news briefing following his visit to the island.
The arbitration court’s ruling in July 2016 was an international legal victory for Manila as it invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash-line” claim to almost the entire South China Sea, including the portion of the Spratly (Kalayaan) archipelago within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
Lorenzana was accompanied by top military officials led by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año; Western Command chief Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario and Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, Philippine Army commander.
The officials raised the Philippine flag. “This is just a normal visit within our territory and we are just visiting our territory to look at the conditions of our people here,” Lorenzana emphasized.
On their way to Kalayaan, their airplane, a C-130 military cargo plane, was challenged at least four times by the Chinese, Philippine officials said.
The Chinese warned that they were entering the periphery of a Chinese installation and told them to keep away to avoid miscalculation. But Lorenzana’s party replied: “We are flying over Philippine territory.”
“That’s automatic (the challenge). That’s their protocol. It’s procedural (for China). We also reply that we are flying over Philippine territory. That was it. That challenge was just an exchange of words. No untoward incident happened,” said the Defense chief.
One of the challenges came from a base in Zamora, and the others from the periphery of Subi, as the aircraft made its pattern for landing.
Lorenzana described such “confrontation” as normal, as the AFP experiences such during re-supply missions.
Duterte wants ‘overnight’ at Pag-asa
On the construction at Pag-asa, the Defense chief said the government has allocated P1.6 billion for the improvement of the island. It was the wish of President Rodrigo Duterte to improve facilities there, he said.
“Actually the construction of the beaching and the repair of the runway has been awarded but it was held in abeyance while the case was being heard by the PCA. There was already a verdict so I think we could already resume [construction]and that’s what the President wants, to improve the facilities [there],” he noted.
Lorenzana said the construction brigade of the Philippine Navyhad been tasked to do the beaching ramp to allow sea vessels to dock and deliver construction materials to island.
China is expected to raise some kind of protest when construction begins, as it had done in the past.
“They have been protesting. And we are protesting also. It was exchange of protest,” he said.
Lorenzana said he was hoping no unfortunate incident would happen.
“I told the Chinese ambassador that we have been here [since]1970, or 1969 I think. In the late 1960’s we are already here and in 1975 we put up the runway,” he said.
Lorenzana said Duterte had told him he would no longer go to Pag-asa as earlier planned to avoid agitating Beijing.
Still, the President, said Lorenzana, still wanted to spend a night in the island and sleep with the troops. “He said he wants to have an overnight here. ‘Let’s sleep with the troops,’ he told me,” Lorenzana said. “Maybe in the future. We don’t know exactly when,” the secretary added.