Philippine officials visit disputed South China Sea island

Reuters

Posted at Jun 10 2020 07:03 PM

A handout photo provided by Philippines' Department of National Defense shows military and defense officials standing during a ceremony of a newly constructed beach ramp at Thitu Island in the disputed South China Sea, June 9, 2020. Philippines' Department of National Defense, Handout/Reuters

MANILA - The Philippines' defense chief and military officials have made a trip to a disputed South China Sea island just a few miles from a base built by China, a visit that could draw criticism from Beijing.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was on Pag-asa (Thitu) island on Tuesday to launch a beaching ramp for construction of much-needed infrastructure on the Philippines' most strategically important South China Sea island.

The ramp will allow movement of construction materials and heavy equipment to the 37-hectare island, home to a handful of soldiers and a small civilian population that helps to prop up the Philippines' claim to sovereignty.

Lorenzana said the $26 million worth of planned upgrades include improvements to Pag-asa's landing strip, but stressed the island would not become a military installation.

"The purpose of this is to develop this area into a viable community," said Lorenzana, adding that he was confident that Beijing would not view Tuesday's visit as a provocation.

The island is part of Kalayaan town in the province of Palawan.

"We will not militarize this. I call it militarization if we bring in other weapons that are heavy, like canons or missiles, everything. We will not do that here."

China's embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pag-asa Island, located 451 kms from the mainland, is the biggest of the 8 reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago.

The Philippines is working to catch up with China and Vietnam, which have been busy developing islands they occupy or have built from scratch on submerged reefs.

China has 6 artificial islands, some equipped with radar, runways and surface-to-air missiles. Those include Subi Reef just 24 kms away and visible from Thitu.

During Lorenzana's last visit in 2017, Chinese authorities warned his plane to leave, but on Tuesday he said there was "no word from them anymore," adding that China knew Manila's intentions were peaceful.

The visit coincided with the commemoration of the 45th year of Philippine-Chinese diplomatic relations.