China threat scuttles lawmakers' trip to Pag-asa Island

Ron Gagalac, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 16 2017 08:07 PM | Updated as of Mar 17 2017 03:53 AM

MANILA – Lawmakers' plan to hold a meeting on Pag-asa Island about issues involving disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea was scuttled Thursday due to security and weather concerns.

The House of Representatives' committee on government enterprises and privatization, chaired by North Cotabato Rep. Jesus Sacdalan, was set to conduct a public hearing on Pag-asa Island, which is part of the disputed Spratly or Kalayaan Islands, to deliberate a proposed bill to create the West Philippine Sea Development Authority. 

However, the military did not clear Sacdalan and the bill’s authors Kabayan Rep. Harry Roque, Tarlac Rep. Victor Yap, and Palawan Reps. Gil Acosta, and Deputy Speaker Rep. Frederick Abueg, for departure from Palawan. 

According to Lt. Gen. Raul Del Rosario of the AFP Western Command (WestCom), said they could not assure the safety and security of the lawmakers, especially because Chinese vessels are in the area.

"Contested area po ito, hindi 100 percent na atin ito. Kaya may concern kung lilipad kayo. Every time an aircraft na lilipad, may warning from them (China). Minsan pinapuputukan ng flare yung aircraft," Del Rosario told lawmakers during the hearing.

Aside from the runway being in need of repair, there are protocols for people going to Pag-asa Island, Del Rosario said.

"Worst-case scenario, kapag binaril ng China ang eroplano niyo, paano namin ie-explain?"

Expressing disappointment at the change in their plan, Roque said a hearing on Pag-asa Island could have given weight to the country’s claim over disputed areas.

"The mere fact that we're discussing this bolsters our claim, at kung natuloy [ang] meeting namin in Kalayaan, that would have been the first time that the Congress of the Philippines conducted a hearing in Kalayaan, and that could further bolster our claim," he said.

The lawmakers instead held a public hearing at the Palawan Provincial Capitol in Puerto Princesa City on planned improvements on Pag-asa Island, such as the construction of a bigger runway and an airport, and a seaport that can accommodate commercial and naval ships.

Other proposed structures include a medical center, ecotourism facilities including a hotel, municipal hall, school building, multipurpose hall, and barangay hall. There are also plans to develop the 7 other islands that form part of the Kalayaan group.

While lawmakers were enthusiastic about developing and staking a claim, the military suggested looking at geopolitics in the disputed territories to determine the feasibility of any proposed development.

"Pag-aralan din natin galaw ng ibang claimant. Like China, commercial ba iyan o military development. Tingnan din natin Vietnam. Madali sabihin na gagawa ng resort pero kung walang makapunta dahil militarized, sayang din," Del Rosario said.

Congress plans to earmark billions of pesos for the development of islands in the West Philippine Sea before the end of 2017, as part of proposed projects that will be legally appropriated for 2018. 

The current budget of the municipality of Kalayaan is only pegged at P67 million for the whole 2017, said Mayor Roberto Del Mundo.