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Philippines counters China, lays claim over Pag-asa

Philippine military officers operate their drone amidst the presence of Chinese ships seen in the background during the visit of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Ano and other officials at the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines Friday, April 21, 2017. The trip led by Lorenzana on an air force C-130 aircraft to the island Filipinos call Pag-asa will likely infuriate China, which has claimed virtually the entire sea and aggressively tried to fortify its foothold, to the consternation of rival claimant governments and the United States. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines stressed its claim over Pag-asa Island in response to the remarks of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua that occupation of the island was illegal.

Earlier this week, the Chinese envoy said that the plan of the Philippines to improve its facilities in the island was also illegal.

"Pag-asa Island and the larger Kalayaan Island Group are a municipality of Palawan," Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said in a statement on Tuesday.

Filipinos occupied the island as early as the late 1960s and built a runway on it in 1975.

"Any visit or activity we undertake there are part and parcel of our Constitutional mandate to ensure the safety, well-being and livelihood of our citizens living in this municipality," Bolivar said.

The statement is the latest manifestation of the Duterte administration, whose dissonant pronouncements on the South China Sea swing from sympathy with China to outright rejection of its claims. Duterte himself insists on setting aside the Philippines' arbitral victory in its maritime claims in pursuing direct talks with Beijing.

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A few weeks ago, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Año visited the island to assert the country's claim.

As Lorenzana and Año's aircraft was circling Zamora or Subi Reef upon approaching the island, they received a warning from Chinese forces to leave the airspace.

The Philippine Air Force pilot responded that the military aircraft was flying in Philippine airspace.

“It’s already normal because each time our planes conduct resupply operations here they are challenged (by the Chinese)," Lorenzana said.

The government plans to repair the 1.2 kilometer-long runway to allow more flights and improve safety of the island.

Lorenzana also said that the administration has set aside P1.6 billion to develop Pag-asa Island.

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