MANILA (UPDATE) — Top defense officials of the Philippines inaugurated Tuesday a cemented pier that would let its ships dock on Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, whose waters were swarmed by over a hundred Chinese boats last year.
The pier, also known as a "beaching ramp," is the first major upgrade of the Philippines in the 9 features it occupies in the West Philippine Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Beijing.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Pag-asa Island hosts Kalayaan town, a Palawan municipality that is home to a military outpost and a civilian community. It has a school, military barracks, and a runway, among other infrastructure.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Felimon Santos Jr., Navy Flag Officer-in-Command Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo, Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Allen Paredes, Army Chief Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, and newly installed AFP Western Command chief Lt. Gen. Erickson Gloria inaugurated the structure.
This is the first time that they all visited the island at the same time.
During the blessing and ribbon cutting ceremony, the ABS-CBN News team spotted several Chinese vessels around the island, including a white Coast Guard vessel, 2 blue and white barges similar to those circling Scarborough Shoal, and several smaller fishing boats.
These were visible in the background of the BRP Ivatan, the first Philippine Navy vessel to dock on the beaching ramp.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the structure would pave the way for more visits by Philippine officials and would make it easier to bring in materials for the repair and construction of the the island's airstrip.
Lorenzana said he did not mind the presence of the Chinese militia as long as Filipinos were not hurt or harassed.
Kalayaan Mayor Roberto del Mundo said the beaching ramp could also let the island invite more visitors and increase their commercial fishing capability.
Del Mundo said he was bothered by the presence of the Chinese militia and coast guard, whose ships follow Philippine boats if they get too close.
He said the military barred residents from going to 2 of their 3 sandbars due to the constant presence of Chinese vessels there.
Upon landing on the island, the news team received roaming notifications saying "Welcome to China!"
The Philippines and China have seen improved ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, who set aside a United Nations-backed tribunal's 2016 ruling that invalidated Beijing's sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
Some 140 Chinese ships that surrounded Pag-asa island last year left after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over their presence.
— Report from Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News