Is new Philippine isle in Chinese hands?

GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc - The Philippine Star

Is the new Philippine island called Sandy Cay now held by China? Rep. Gary Alejano says yes; Foreign Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano says no. Only one way to find out, they dare each other. Go see for yourself.

Sandy Cay is a newly formed isle from sandbars three nautical miles off Pag-Asa, the main part of Palawan’s Kalayaan town. A word war rages between Alejano and Cayetano over China’s reported grab of the isle under the Duterte presidency. Cayetano says he will resign if anybody can prove that the admin has lost territory to China. Alejano, an ex-Marine captain, cites Sandy Cay as example of territorial surrender.

Alejano wants Cayetano to join him in expedition with reporters. Saying his presence could spark diplomatic complications, Cayetano offers to have Alejano escorted there.

Neither of them mentions risks to security and safety. If China indeed is in control, they could be harassed or forcibly evicted. The rainy season has set in, and waters around Pag-Asa are choppier.

One can get to Sandy Cay by boat from Pag-Asa. The latter is home to about 200 civilians, under a mayor and a barangay chairman. There’s also a detachment of sailors and Marines. Pag-Asa is an hour’s flight or eight hours’ sail across the West Philippine Sea from Puerto Princesa. (I’ve visited twice, in 1982 and 2003, on invitation of the Armed Forces. Sandy Cay was then what its name is, a cay or low bank of sand and corals.)

Being within 12 miles of Pag-Asa, Sandy Cay is part of Philippine territory under the Baselines Act. The arbitral tribunal at The Hague noted that it was under or above high tide parts of the year within the Philippine territorial boundary. During China’s dredging of Subi Reef 16 miles away into an artificial island, pulverized corals drifted to Sandy Cay. The latter became permanently above sea level. Under international law it is part of Philippine territory since it arose over high tide within territorial waters. Under the Constitution, government is duty-bound to defend it.

In August the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute published aerial photos of nine Chinese naval, coast guard, and maritime militia vessels operating one to three miles off Pag-Asa. They reportedly prevented a craft of the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources from beaching on Sandy Cay to investigate.

Alejano quotes military sources as disclosing that President Rodrigo Duterte froze naval patrols. The AMTI reported that, amid Chinese protests, Manila refrained from erecting anything on Sandy Cay in respect of a non-binding 2002 Declaration of Conduct among disputants in the Spratlys.

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MRT-3’s private builder-franchisee hails any rehiring of Japanese giant Sumitomo Corp. to fix and service the rotted commuter railway. It also affirmed that Sumitomo gave the $150-million work cost relayed to transport officials in 2014 and 2016.

The Dept. of Transport denies any $150-million (P7.5-billion) offer from Sumitomo. And that it only got a five-page letter from chairman Robert Sobrepeña of Metro Rail Transit Corp. (MRTC). That was in reply to this column asking why DOTr is borrowing P17 billion – nearly P10 billion more – to rehabilitate and maintain MRT-3. Both DOTr and lender Japan International Cooperation Agency prefer Sumitomo to do the job.

“Sobrepeña supports any move to bring back Sumitomo to MRT-3,” MRTC said last weekend. “Sumitomo is the right company to rehab and maintain it. They built the train and maintained it for 12 years. They have the expertise.”

“The cost of $150 million for rehabilitation was based on estimates Sumitomo submitted to MRTC in 2014,” Sobrepeña clarified. “The MRTC proposal is still available should DOTr want to consider it. Our proposal was actually made by Sumitomo as our contractor. The MRTC proposal with Sumitomo is most beneficial, most cost-effective, and can be implemented fastest for convenience and safety of the riding public.”

Sumitomo had erected MRT-3 in 1998-1999, then maintained it in 2000-2012 under MRTC’s build-lease-transfer deal with the government. In 2012 DOTr replaced the Japanese with a series of three inept outfits. MRT-3 trains, tracks, signaling, power supply, and stations deteriorated. Calling in old service provider Sumitomo, MRTC proposed to DOTr in Dec. 2014 a 26-month restoration and upkeep of MRT-3 to previous safety and reliability.

MRTC said: “The return of Sumitomo was in fact in the proposal that Sobrepeña submitted as far back as 2014 and again in 2016 directly to DOTr Sec. Arthur Tugade. The Sobrepeña-MRTC proposal was for the complete rehab of MRT3 for $150 million that would be paid directly by DOTr to Sumitomo, without any profit to MRTC, on pass-through basis, as was the practice when MRTC maintained MRT-3 from 2000 to 2012.”

DOTr did not entertain MRTC’s Sumitomo-based P7.5-billion plan. Last month it announced a P17-billion JICA loan for rehab and upkeep. Although the scope of work is the same as in 2014, there is no itemization of the P17 billion to explain the nearly P10-billion jump.

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One more thing DOTr needs to disclose is its plan for the 48 inoperable new Chinese coaches. Japanese and German engineers separately have found the trains defective. Fifteen safety and reliability tests, involving 94 components, were left undone at the Dalian Corp. factory or the MRT-3. Design and weight flaws hinder maintenance. The Japanese advise returning the trains to China for retrofit. The Germans, whom DOTr paid P53 million, want quick action.

About to be finished is MRT-3’s power supply and depot upgrade to four-coach train sets from the present three. Not only that P827-million work but also the rehab would be wasted in the indecision.

DOTr had purchased the trains in 2013 for P3.8 billion. There was a five-percent or P190-million kickback, ex-MRT-3 general manager Al Vitangcol swears. Remnants of the past DOTr involved in that deal oversee MRT-3 at present.

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Catch Sapol radio show, Saturdays, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ (882-AM).

Gotcha archives on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jarius-Bondoc/1376602159218459 , or The STAR website https://www.philstar.com/columns/134276/gotcha.

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