MANILA, Philippines - A military aircraft flying Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año over the West Philippine Sea received a warning yesterday from Chinese forces to leave the airspace.
The Philippine Air Force (PAF) C-130 transport aircraft was circling over Zamora or Subi Reef for its final approach to the unpaved Rancudo airfield on Pag-Asa Island in the Spratlys when it received a radio warning from the Chinese to stay away from the area.
The PAF pilot responded that the aircraft was flying in Philippine airspace.
Lorenzana downplayed the incident. “It’s already normal because each time our planes conduct resupply operations here they are challenged (by the Chinese),” he said.
“We replied that we are flying over Philippine territory,” Lorenzana later told reporters.
AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla said the Chinese told the Filipino pilots to stay away from Subi to avoid a miscalculation.
“As before, (the pilots) were once again challenged as they made their pattern of landing,” Padilla said.
From being merely a “seabed” in “international waters” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Subi Reef has metamorphosed into a bustling artificial island, with massive structures, a 3,000-meter runway, two ports, gun emplacements, and radar domes.
There were reports the Chinese have installed a missile defense system on the reef. Based on UNCLOS, there can be no territorial waters for features built on the seabed. Subi Reef is about 40 nautical miles from Pag-asa Island.
With Lorenzana and Año on the plane were Army commanding general Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, Western Command (Wescom) commander Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario, and other AFP officials and members of the media. The aircraft touched down at around 8 a.m. The DND chief attended a flag ceremony along with 45 military officials and personnel stationed on the island.
The group, with Palawan Gov. Jose Alvarez and representatives of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), toured the island.
On the West side of Pag-asa facing the West Philippine Sea, Lorenzana personally witnessed the presence from a distance of four to five Chinese Coast Guard ships.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it welcomed efforts of the Department of National Defense and the AFP to secure Pag-asa Island.
“We defer to the DND and the Armed Forces on how best to fulfill their Constitutional mandates with respect to improving the safety, welfare, livelihood and personal security of Filipinos in the Palawan municipality of Kalayaan,” the DFA said.
Soldiers assigned on Pag-asa island told The STAR they call the Eastern side of the island the Philippine side and the Western part the “unsafe side” as they wouldn’t want to call it the Chinese side.
In remarks, Lorenzana assured government troops the administration of President Duterte and the AFP are looking after their welfare despite the Chinese menace.
The Chinese, he explained, “believe that this is theirs, they protest to say that they do not want what we are doing here.”
The Philippines maintains that the island group including Pag-asa is part of its territory, which Filipinos occupied as early as the late 1960s, and on which a runway was built in 1975.
“I don’t think I should give them any message. This is just a normal visit within our territory, we believe and we know that this is our territory and I am just visiting to look at the conditions of our people here,” Lorenzana said.
Reacting to China’s challenging the PAF’s flight over Subi, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the administration takes seriously the Chinese action.
“We mind and we respond appropriately. We have our challenges and answers where protocols to be made if it is bad enough that that could be the basis for some note verbales,” Esperon said after President Duterte’s visit to Russian ship Varyag yesterday.
“A challenge is not something that is really positive. But a challenge could be just to identify yourself but it could also mean that you’re challenging because you think that’s your territory,” he added.
Asked if Duterte would go to Pag-asa island in the future, Esperon said: “In the future? Let me answer you that in the future.”
Pressed if the President would spend a night in the island, the national security adviser replied: “Why not? But not now.”
Meanwhile, Loranzana also revealed the administration has set aside at least P1.6 billion to develop Pag-asa.
He said the building of a beaching ramp would be prioritized and hopefully done by July this year so that construction materials like gravel and cement as well as heavy equipment could be brought to the island by sea.
He told reporters in a press briefing that BFAR also intends to build a fish port in the area.
The government also wants to put up a radio station, an ice plant, water desalination facility, homes for soldiers stationed in the island, and put up a sewage system.
“We will develop this into a tourism area and marine research (facility),” Lorenzana said.
“These are our plans, the plans of the President and he said do it now and do not delay. That’s why we are here now,” he stressed.
“We’ve been here since 1971, and our flag has been planted way back in the 1970s. We were here first, the others just followed,” he said of the country’s claim on the Kalayaan Islands.
Lorenzana said the development of Pag-asa has long been delayed because of the arbitration case filed by the Philippines that resulted in a moratorium on the implementation of projects.
The DND chief said President Duterte’s treatment of China shows that he is just trying to develop friends around the neighborhood.
“China is the most powerful country in our neighborhood, economically and militarily, and we are trying to manage the issue and talk to them one-on-one bilaterally, settle this dispute in the South China Sea,” he said.
“I believe that the President is right in talking to the Chinese leadership on how to manage the issue here in South China Sea,” he added.
The second biggest island next only to the Taiwanese-occupied Itu Aba, Pag-asa is a fifth class municipality in Palawan exercising overall jurisdiction over the country’s regime of islands in the disputed Spratlys region.
Lorenzana’s trip to Pag-asa came only a day after reports came out about Chinese coast guards firing warning shots to drive a group of Bataan-based Filipino fishermen from Union Bank. The incident, which reportedly happened on March 27, involved Chinese coast guards securing the reclaimed Gaven Reef.
Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Commander Armand Balilo confirmed receiving information about the Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen around Union Bank.
He said a Chinese coast guard speedboat with guns and carrying seven personnel fired shots at the fishing boat Princess Johann, which is owned and operated by Dionisio Cabacungan.
The Chinese reportedly fired warning shots when the Filipino boat dropped anchor some two nautical miles from Union Bank. The crew panicked, cut off their anchor line and fled the area.
Balilo said they were not able to interview the fishermen as they had already returned to the sea. “We were only able to communicate with them via radio. But according to the boat captain, the Chinese Coast Guard did not directly fire shots at them,” he said.
Vietnamese and Chinese forces have already occupied most of the maritime features within the Union Bank, a wide body of submerged features right within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping maritime claims in the region. Only Brunei has no military presence in the areas it claims. – With Evelyn Macairan, Helen Flores, Alexis Romero