The Philippines said Friday it would persevere with construction work on a miniscule isle it claims in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly chain, despite reports about a heavy presence of Chinese militia ships and forces in the area.
Runway repairs and projects to improve safety facilities on Pag-asa Island were part of the Philippine government’s mandate, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
“Having undergone careful planning and consideration, with full respect to international law and rules-based order governing civilized states, implementing these improvements is a legitimate undertaking, and well within our rights as a sovereign nation,” Lorenzana said in a statement.
“The presence of militia on the Chinese man-made structures is no surprise to us as they have been there since 2012,” he added.
He was reacting to reports that a displeased Beijing had deployed about 95 ships near the Philippine occupied Pag-asa island. The Chinese refer to it as Thitu Island.
A tiny Philippine township called Kalayaan sits on the island, which is under the jurisdiction of southwestern Palawan province. It has been part of the country since the late 1970s, by virtue of a presidential decree and other international laws, Lorenzana stressed.
He said Manila expected China and other claimant states in the sea region “to respect Philippine sovereignty” and to conduct themselves in a “civilized manner befitting members of the global community.”
Lorenzana had revealed earlier that China tried to stop the Philippines from repairing some structures on Pag-asa, such as a beaching ramp, which is expected to be completed by the first quarter of this year.
Construction work was also under way for the repair of an air strip, the refurbishing of a military barracks, the building of desalination facilities, a sewage disposal system, conventional and renewable power generators, lighthouses, shelters and storage facilities for fishermen.
“These planned modest improvements are basic but nonetheless highly essential in delivering social services to raise the standard of living and improve the quality of life of Filipino citizens on the island,” Lorenzana said.
Last July, “a handful of Chinese vessels” started operating in the area between the Chinese-occupied Subi Reef – known to Filipinos as Zamora Reef – and Pag-asa, according to a report published this week by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a U.S.-based think-tank.
By early December, the number of Chinese ships in the area had risen to 24, AMTI reported. That coincided with the start of the Philippine construction activities in the area.
“In five subsequent satellite images captured from mid-December to late January, their numbers fluctuate, reaching a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26,” AMTI noted in its report published Wednesday.
“This deployment is consistent with prior examples of China’s ‘cabbage strategy,’ which employs concentric layers of fishing, law enforcement and naval vessels around contested areas,” the report said.
The Spratly Islands, a chain of potentially mineral-rich islands and atolls in the South China Sea, are claimed in whole or in part by China, Taiwan and the Southeast Asian countries of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
It is considered a flashpoint in the region. The claimants have agreed to desist from any actions that would complicate the matter, although China has been expanding and militarizing islands it occupies.
Beijing claims nearly the whole of the South China Sea. It has strengthened its presence there by expanding shoals into artificial islands and building military and other facilities.
An international arbitration tribunal ruled in favor of Manila in 2016 and rejected China’s vast claims in the sea region. In spite of this, President Rodrigo Duterte has taken steps to appease Beijing, which was angered by the ruling.
He has also moved to distance his government away from the United States, China’s rival and a longtime ally of the Philippines.
Washington, in the meantime, has pressed ahead with freedom of navigation flights and sailing in the South China Sea, a vital waterway for world trade.
‘We should protest such actions’
Commenting on the Pag-asa controversy, opposition Congressman Gary Alejano urged Duterte to oppose what he described as a clear act of intimidation by the Chinese in the region.
“The aggressive response of China is expected of them because it is what they have been doing in our territorial waters when we carry on with the construction plans in our own islands,” Alejano said.
“Nonetheless, we should protest such actions and continue to assert our rights and control in our territory,” he said.
China’s strategy was to encircle Philippine territory in the sea region to the point of preventing Manila from having effective control over Pag-asa, he said.
Alejano said that the government’s construction plans in the area would “and must carry on because our actions are legally backed by our arbitration victory.”
In a speech in which he outlined the country’s national security concerns for the year, Lorenzana told the National Defense College in Manila last week that the government had not abandoned its territorial claims.
He reiterated the government’s stance that China and other claimant countries finalize and adopt a “valid, binding and mutually acceptable code of conduct” in the South China Sea.
“While we recognize China as a bilateral partner for joint ventures and other endeavors, it is worth emphasizing that our territorial sovereignty and integrity, maritime entitlements and rights should not be compromised. We are not compromising them; we are not giving them away,” Lorenzana said.
“The Philippines continues to view the arbitral tribunal ruling as valid and legitimate. We have not, and we will never surrender any part of our territory,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.