Updated at 1:13 p.m. ET on 2020-05-22
The Philippines has made significant progress in upgrading facilities in an island it controls in contested waters of the South China Sea, but it will “take another year at least” to finish all the construction work, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Friday.
Manila for three years has been building upgrades to infrastructure on Pag-asa (Thitu), an island that lies in the Spratly chain of islands, where China, the Philippines and other countries have overlapping territorial claims, and Beijing has constructed military outposts on atolls.
“It is not quite finished,” Lorenzana told BenarNews. “Only the beaching ramp is 95 percent finished. We will have to lengthen and pave the runway.”
He said it would “take another year at least” to complete all the construction work on Pag-asa. Lorenzana declined to elaborate further.
The defense chief’s announcement came more than a week after a Philippine Navy heavy landing craft, the BRP Ivanatan, completed a re-provisioning mission to Pag-asa, the first time that a navy vessel of its size had docked there.
Lorenzana said the navy’s docking of the ship at the island could be considered historic, and came at a time when troops there needed fresh supplies and goods. The island where Philippine civilians and military personnel live is a municipality within the Kalayaan chain of islands, which are part of the Spratly Islands.
The 1.6 billion peso (U.S. $31.4 million) infrastructure project, which began in 2017, includes the refurbishment of runway facilities, docking areas, power and desalination plants, and a radio station. But deadly storms and continued tensions in the South China Sea have slowed down the rehabilitation project, officials said.
Last year, Pag-asa was the site of maritime tensions when Chinese fishing boats swarmed the waters around it.
Manila has had a presence on the island since the 1970s. The Spratly chain that surrounds it is believed to sit atop vast natural oil and gas deposits. The Spratlys are claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been careful to not antagonize China since he took office in 2016. He has visited Beijing multiple times and said repeatedly that he did not want to risk angering China over territorial wranglings in the sea region.
Last month, however, the Philippines strongly objected to Beijing’s creation of two districts in the South China Sea, as well as its designation of Kagitingan Reef as an administrative center for its “Nansha district.” The reef lies within the Kalayaan group.
Manila also recently sided with Hanoi when a Chinese ship allegedly sank a fishing vessel in disputed waters around the Paracel Islands – nearly similar to what had happened in June 2019 to a Philippine vessel, which was rammed by a Chinese boat, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen at sea off Reed Bank (Recto Bank) near the Spratlys.