PH sets Pagasa airstrip upgrade, China protests

Naval project to be finished this year

The Philippines strengthened its claim to a disputed territory in the Kalayaan Island Group following a plan to construct an approach to a runway in Pagasa Island, triggering a strong protest from China.

An Air Force official on Wednesday disclosed that the Navy has already awarded the right for the project to the winning bidder, including the dredging activities preparatory to construction.

“Right now, it’s a two stage construction project. The first stage is to provide the approach to the island, and it’s now being undertaken by the Navy [because] it’s a naval project. We do things something like dredging projects so that the construction material can come in. So the first part is now under bidding [and] I understand they have (Navy) determined already the winning bidder,” according to Major Gen. Edgar Fallorina, chief of staff of Philippine Air Force chief Lt. Gen.  Jeffrey Delgado.

Fallorina said the construction of the approach should come first before any development or improvement takes place for the Pagasa runway, while the second part would involve improvements on the runway itself.

He said that the project is expected to be finished within the year.

But as early as Monday, China has demanded that the Philippines withdraw all its facilities and personnel in disputed territories in the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, where the KIG is located.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying said that since the 1970s, the Philippines has “illegally and forcefully occupied parts of China’s Nansha Islands (Spratlys), including Zhongye Island (Pagasa), in violation of the United Nations Charter and principles of international law.”

Hua also slammed the plan by the Philippine military to develop naval facilities in Pag-asa Island, which Manila considers as part of the Kalayaan town in Palawan.

Hua noted that since last December, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense announced that it would upgrade the airstrips and naval facilities on Pag-asa Island. The following month, the DND again announced their plans to build a world-class airport on the Kalayaan Group of Islands.

“The Philippine side, on the one hand, intentionally takes provocative actions while on the other hand makes irresponsible remarks on China’s legitimate actions which are within China’s sovereignty,” she declared. “That is unjustifiable.”

Hua made the statement after Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said he would propose that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) call for a moratorium on construction in the South China Sea as he cited the “need to manage the tensions” in the disputed region “before it gets out of hand.”

Del Rosario made the proposal in the wake of reports that China was reportedly planning to build an artificial island in the disputed region.

But Hua reitretated that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys  and their adjacent waters.

“Activities by China on relevant islands or reefs of the Nansha Islands fall completely within China’s sovereignty,” she said.

Recently, about 150 people conducted a rally in Makati and chanted, “Get out China!,” in protest of China’s reclamation activity at several reefs in the Spratly Islands.

Carlos Celdran, a Manila artist and historian, said the dispute between China and the Philippines was all about tapping the resources in the South China Sea.           

Celdran said China doing reclamation work, drilling in contested waters and taking other actions to assert its claims is “so old-fashioned.”

But he also says Filipinos should “get involved [in] the issue.”

Aside from the 31.5-hectare Pagasa, the Philippines claim as its own at least seven islets and two reefs in Spratlys, which is also being contested by several of its neighboring countries.

Recently, one of KIG’s reefs, the Mabini, had been invaded by China which had reportedly done reclamation and construction for reportedly a military garrison with an airstrip.

China is also threatening to take over Ayungin Shoal despite the presence of Marine troops stationed on board the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.

Meanwhile, Delgado reported that as many as 10 to 12 Chinese government and military vessels had been patrolling the West Philippine Sea including areas claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory.

“There are times that they number - in the whole of the West Philippine Sea - ten to twelve. But it also trickles down to three or four,” he said.

Delgado said the Air Force conducts daily maritime patrols above the West Philippine Sea. He said photographs of reclamation activities by China is part of the output they provide to the national government.

The Air Force is now focusing on Bajo de Masinloc near Zambales, and Ayungin Shoal in Palawan, Delgado said, “because these are the areas with pictures of new activities being done by other countries.”

Delgado said the Air Force has now shifted its focus significantly on territorial defense of the West Philippine Sea and added that preparations include not just the acquisition of air assets, but also the installation of radars on locations to be determined, and the training of personnel who will be operating the new air assets once they arrive.

As this developed, the Puerto Princesa City Regional Trial Court has deferred anew the pre-trial of nine Chinese fishermen accused of poaching off Half Moon Shoal, locally known as Hasa-Hasa Shoal, because their lawyer did not show up before the court.

Provincial prosecutor Allen Ross Rodriguez said that Judge Ambrosio de Luna of the Puerto Princesa City RTC, Branch 51, postponed the scheduled pre-trial of the Chinese poachers, which was intended to clarify points of law and facts.

The prosecutor said the court has provided the nine Chinese fishermen a lawyer from the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) during their arraignment, but the designation of the lawyer was just temporary.

Judge de Luna has rescheduled the pre-trial to July 1, the third time that the pre-trial of the Chinese fisherman has been deferred. With AFP

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