Last month, the Philippine Navy’s BRP Ivatan made history as the first Philippine vessel to have docked at Pag-asa island (also known as Thitu), the second largest island in the Spratlys Group, and the largest in the Philippine-held Kalayaan Island Group.
Previously, Philippine ships were forced to drop anchor several kilometers away—with passengers and cargo transferred to smaller boats—because the waters around the island are too shallow to allow large vessels to berth. Without a port, visiting Pag-asa was regarded as a logistical nightmare.
That is, until the country’s military started building in late 2018 a seaport and beaching ramp that will be operational by next week—on June 12, to be exact.
The new facilities will allow easier access to the island by Philippine ships and civilians, which would, in turn, help establish a stronger Filipino presence in the West Philippine Sea.
The new sheltered port will also facilitate the resupply of provisions to the soldiers and civilian community in the island, while allowing the Philippine military and its contractors to bring in materials to reconstruct the existing but crumbling airfield as well as build new structures and facilities.
That the port and beaching ramp will be opened on Independence Day should serve as a firm reaffirmation of Philippine sovereignty on the island and the surrounding waters.
And no equivocation in this regard: The defense department under Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and the Duterte administration, deserve kudos for rehabilitating and strengthening Pag-asa, despite the strong opposition and lobbying by China which claims (without legal basis, according to the arbitral tribunal in The Hague) nearly all of the South China Sea.
Recall that in November 2018, Lorenzana said then Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua had objected to the project, as if Beijing had any business interfering in the management of a territory the Philippines has effectively occupied, controlled, and peopled since 1971. “When he learned that we are going to repair our runway in Pag-asa, he came to me and said, ‘No’.” Not only that: “When he learned that I was going to Pag-asa, he came to me and tried to dissuade me from going there.”
A weak and neglected Pag-asa, merely some 390 kilometers from Palawan and the most prominent outpost of the Philippines’ claim to the West Philippine Sea, is of course in the interest of its avaricious giant neighbor.
A recent Bloomberg piece by Tobin Harshaw posits the island as an “object of desire” by Beijing in its long-term drive to dominate the region: “Thitu (Pag-asa’s international name) has three things most of the Spratlys lack: fresh water; a year-round population (roughly 200, including many veterans and schoolchildren); and a crumbling concrete airfield about 1,120 meters long. It also has a new neighbor.
Starting in 2014, China began a land reclamation project 25 km to Thitu’s south at Subi Reef, which previously poked its head above water only at low tide.
The Subi development, like half a dozen other Chinese constructions in the South China Sea, is a forward position in Beijing’s effort to control all the waters up to 1,930 km off its southeastern shores, to what it has long referred to as the ‘Nine-Dash Line’ in the Pacific.”
Chinese vessels have also been swarming Pag-asa. Three years ago, satellite photos released by former congressman Gary Alejano, showed a flotilla of five Chinese fishing ships, coast guard vessels, and frigates of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy within 5 nautical miles of the island.
The Philippine military itself monitored 136 unique Chinese vessels near the island in the first two months of 2020. The Department of Foreign Affairs filed several protests last year against the increasing presence of Chinese vessels around Pag-asa, which is 2,938 km away from China.
First announced in 2017, the rehabilitation of the island has been a difficult undertaking marked by a number of delays. To be fair, Lorenzana has attributed such delays not to Chinese obstructionism but to Pag-asa’s natural features and topography—including a seabed “so hard” that contractors had to bring in appropriate drilling equipment—and the harsh weather and seas that limited the transport of construction materials to the months of January to May.
On June 12 next week, when the refurbished harbor in Pag-asa becomes operational, the Philippine flag will fly proudly over what is hopefully only the first of vital infrastructure projects to be completed to further develop the country’s frontier territory. That milepost should send a message to China and the world: Pag-asa, and the West Philippine Sea around it, belong indisputably to the Philippines.
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