MANILA - Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Gen. Cirilito Sobejana visited Pag-asa island in the West Philippine Sea earlier this week and told troops to defend the country's territory, a move that could stoke already heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing in disputed waters claimed by both countries.
During Monday's visit to the island, Sobejana commended the soldiers for the role they played in protecting the island's residents and "guarding the country's territories" in the strategic waterway.
The West Philippine Sea is part of the resource-rich South China Sea, 90 percent of which is being claimed by Beijing despite an international ruling invalidating it.
"[It's] just to see what is really happening thereat and it is also in line with our plan to convert the island into a logistics hub to sustain our forces deployed in the area," Sobeja said on Tuesday night.
Sobejana, accompanied by other ranking military officials, flew to the island supposedly aboard a C-130 plane.
He said his aircraft was not "challenged" by the Chinese. China usually challenges or warns ships and aircraft entering what it claims to be part of Chinese territory.
"There was no disruption whatsoever and I was able to convey my message to our forces deployed in that part of our archipelago... Our visit was very smooth," he said.
"I was able to go around the island and we checked what we can do further to really make it a logistics hub in coordination with the local government," the military chief added.
Last month, Sobejana disclosed plans to turn the island into a logistics hub so patrolling Navy ships need not go Puerto Princesa City to refuel and resupply, thus longer time to patrol.
The visit came after recent diplomatic protests made by the Philippines over what it says is the illegal presence of hundreds of "Chinese maritime militia" vessels inside its exclusive economic zone and near its occupied islands.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
VISIT WILL NOT STOKE TENSIONS
Sobejana said he is confident his visit would not cause further tension in the dispute area.
The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are claiming in part or in whole the islands, islets and other features in the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3 trillion every year.
"It is our own, why should we be afraid? It is our territory so we can do, we can pursue whatever plan we have for as long as it is for the best interest of our country," Sobejana explained.
He added that the morale of the troops in the island is very high, especially so if someone from AFP general headquarters visits them.
"So my visit further motivates their will to do their job and perform their mandates."
Asked for his instructions to the troops there, the AFP chief said: "Well, the general instructions, that we are mandated to defend our territory."
At least 2 other AFP chiefs under the Duterte administration visited Pag-asa Island, the last was Gen. Felimon Santos in June last year.
Santos, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and military officials went to the island for the inauguration of its beaching ramp.
In April 2017, then AFP chief now Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, along with Lorenzana and other military officials, also visited the island. The visited was protested by China.
Pag-asa island, known internationally as Thitu Island, is the biggest of the nine reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago.
Th island serves as the seat of government of Kalayaan town in Palawan, and is about 480 kilometers or 300 miles from Puerto Princesa City. Hundreds of troops and civilians are staying there.
ASEAN foreign ministers and China agreed during a meeting on Monday to exercise restraint in the South China Sea and avoid actions that could escalate tensions.
- With reports from Reuters