MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines’ military chief flew to a Filipino-occupied island in the South China Sea on Monday and vowed to defend the territory and help develop tourism and marine resources there amid disputes with China.
Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang, accompanied by journalists and other military officials, said he visited Pag-asa Island to establish that the island is part of western Palawan province and “therefore Pag-asa is a territory of the Republic of the Philippines.” The island’s international name is Thitu, and Chinese name is Zhongye.
He vowed to defend it and other Philippine-claimed islands in the area from aggression.
“According to our constitution these are our regime of islands and we have to protect our regime of islands, in as much as they form our territory and sovereignty,” Catapang added.
He said he was coordinating with Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon on how the military can help implement the local government’s development plans, including tours to the island.
The visit comes amid protests in the Philippines over China’s stepped-up reclamation work on Philippine-claimed islands and aggressive maneuvers against Filipino air patrols and fishermen.
Mayor Bito-onon told reporters the local government is acquiring a 25-meter steel boat which can be used beginning next year to ferry tourists on the 26-hour trip from Palawan’s mainland to Pag-asa and other islands within his municipality of Kalayaan. He said they also need a harbor to support a fishing industry, and to expand the 1.2 kilometer-long runway on the island where 85 civilians live.
Catapang said his visit, made on the invitation of the mayor, should not fuel more tensions with China. He came to see how the military can support Bito-onon’s “tourism for peace” plan, and to say goodbye to troops stationed there before he retires in July, he added.
The C130 plane that flew Catapang’s group to Pagasa passed by six islands in the area occupied by a handful of Philippine troops where small structures made of concrete and tin roofs can be seen from the air. Catapang described as “enormous” the reclamation work done by the Chinese on Philippine-claimed Subi Reef, which can be seen as the plane approached Pag-asa.
Major Ferdinand Atos, the most senior military officer on the island, was worried about the rapid Chinese reclamation.
“We are concerned with the creeping invasion,” he said, “Two years ago they were not there, now you see them getting closer.”
He also said Chinese ships have been warning Philippine vessels on water and air, turning the area into a “no flight zone.” They have also sprayed water on Filipino fishing boats to drive them away from Philippine-claimed Panata island, Atos added.
Filipino officials say China has done massive reclamation work on at least seven Philippine-claimed reefs, creating artificial islands out of them.
Rovelyn Jugo, a 22-year-old mother and Pag-asa resident, said life is quiet and simple on the island. She said she does not think of the possibility of a Chinese occupation, but that her family was always ready to evacuate at any time.
“We need to be always ready,” she said. “Our things are in plastic containers that we can easily take with us.”