The Philippines inaugurated a beaching ramp on Pag-asa Island on Tuesday, with officials describing it as the first of many upgrades on the territory that Manila claims in South China Sea waters near where Beijing has established military outposts.
The ramp is a concrete pier that will allow ships to dock on Pag-asa, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said. Known internationally as Thitu Island, Pag-asa is one of about nine islands and atolls that Manila occupies in the contested region of the Spratly Islands. The island also hosts a small community, a runway in need of repairs, a school and military barracks.
“This is very significant. With the beaching ramp we can bring in more materials, equipment to continuously repair and then later on to maintain our airstrip,” Lorenzana said during a visit to the island to inaugurate the ramp, according to transcripts of his remarks released by his office.
“Before this beaching ramp, when you brought in equipment here or anything – food or whatever – you had to anchor about 500 meters away and transfer the goods into a small boat,” he said, describing the old process as “tedious and expensive.”
With the completion of the beaching ramp, the next phase of development could begin, the defense chief said.
“We can now proceed with the other projects planned for Pag-asa island. This is a necessary first step, which will facilitate the transportation of essential construction equipment to the island,” Lorenzana said.
Completed with a budget of 267 million pesos (U.S. $5.3 million), the ramp is one of several projects planned for the municipality there, called Kalayaan, which has been on Philippine maps since the 1970s.
Another 1.3 billion pesos ($26 million) has been earmarked for other projects in the pipeline, including the repair and concreting of the runway that has been damaged by erosion, he said. In addition, a sheltered port for fishing boats stranded by stormy weather has been constructed.
The project’s completion comes amid mounting territorial tensions in the potentially mineral-rich sea region claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Beijing’s rival, Taiwan.
Since last year, China has been positioning civilian and militia ships in the region, leading the Philippines to issue diplomatic complaints.
Chinese ships also allegedly sank Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats in South China Sea waters, raising regional tensions.
Twenty-two Filipino fishermen were left at sea off Reed Bank after their boat allegedly was rammed by a Chinese boat in June 2019.
Manila filed a diplomatic protest last year over reports that Chinese ships had been seen swarming near Pag-asa. Lorenzana then accused Beijing of bullying.
Defense officials later confirmed that 113 Chinese ships were seen near Pag-asa, about 300 miles (483 km) from the western Philippine island of Palawan.
More recently, the Philippine government lodged a diplomatic protest over China’s creation of two districts in the region and its designation of Kagitingan Reef within an administrative center it calls Nansha district.
The Philippines claims that the reef is within its Kalayaan island group.
Managing the dispute
On Tuesday, Lorenzana said that despite the fresh tensions, President Rodrigo Duterte “is managing the issue between China and the Philippines well.”
The defense minister stressed that renovations were part of the Philippines’ strategy to reinforce its claims, but noted that it “does not have an army here” even as some naval troops have been stationed here. With the refurbished facilities, he said he hoped to encourage more visits by government officials and civilians to the outpost.
“The Chinese said that they will not attack us, so we are safe here,” he said. “The purpose of this is just to develop this area into a viable community.”
Lorenzana said there were Chinese nearby disguised as fishermen “but we know they are militia.”
“We cannot influence their actions,” Lorenzana said. “If their militia is there … as long as they don’t molest our fishermen, they can stay there.”
Meanwhile, Filipino fishermen marked the one-year anniversary of the Chinese sinking of the FB Gemver 1 by accusing Duterte of “compromising the country’s marine territory to China in exchange for foreign loans and investments.”
“Exactly a year after a Chinese vessel endangered the lives of our fishermen, not even a single perpetrator has been held to account,” said Fernado Hicap, leader of the group called Pamalakaya, which represents the fishermen.
“The socio-economic lives of the 22 affected fishermen didn’t return to normal since then,” he said in a statement. “Worse, China is still present in our territorial waters, triggering fear and intimidation among the Filipino fishers.”
Jojo Rinoza in Dagupan, Philippines, contributed to this report.