Pag-asa residents watch China build 'city' in neighboring reef
MANILA, Philippines – The contrast is stark. Standing on one end of the dilapidated Philippine runway on Pag-asa island, one can see with naked eyes a stretch of China's massive facilities in nearby Subi Reef.
But a climb to the top of the communication tower beside the town hall gives one the best view. With a powerful camera, one can see blue roofs and white sphere on the reef.
Residents say the reef shines bright in the evenings.
"Yung parola nila nakikita namin, pati mga ilaw. Maliwanag. Parang siyudad na rin yan e (We can see the lighthouse, and the lights. It's very bright [at night]. It's like a city over there)," Pag-asa fisherman Romeo Malaguit told Rappler.
Malaguit is originally from Basilan in Westerdan Mindanao. He moved to Palawan to find work, and eventually got married and now has two children. They have been living in Pag-asa since 2009, although his family is back in Puerto Princesa for the children's summer vacation.
Residents here have watched Subi Reef change in recent years. China started in 2013 the reclamation work in the rocky sandbar less than 20 nautical miles from Pag-asa, based on military reports.
Four years later, Subi Reef is one of the reclaimed reefs that have runways and are feared to be ready to house Chinese missiles.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana visited Pag-asa, along with the top brass of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), on Friday, April 21, to check on the situation of troops and residents in the island.
Pag-asa is the second biggest naturally occuring island in the Spratlys and is the only one occupied by a civilian population.
It is the second known high-profile visit of a government officials since China reclaimed reefs in the disputed seas. The last visit was by then AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang, now retired, in May 2015. (WATCH: PH military chief tours disputed South China Sea)
But the residents here are not afraid of the Chinese, according to Kalayaan Mayor Obet Del Mundo. He said there is peaceful co-existence.
"Hindi kami nangangamba rito kasi hindi naman kami pinapakialaman. Hindi naman kami hina-harrass katulad doon sa Scarborough Shoal (We are not afraid here because they let us be. We are not being harassed like the case in Scarborough Shoal)," Del Mundo said.
"Nakakapangisda sila dito. Nakakapangisda kami sa paligid-ligid. Pero hindi kami makrating sa malapit sa kanila. Kahit yung eroplano talagang sinasabihan na hindi kayo pwede dito (They fish here. We also fish around the island but we can't go near them. Even our airplanes are challenged when they get near)," Del Mundo said.
It's usually the news they watch on TV when they're back in Puerto Princesa that sometimes get residents rattled.
Aisa Balidan, an employee at the town hall, is happy the word war is over. "Hindi naman [nakakatakot] po, ma’am, kasi hindi naman rin sila nang-aano tulad dati. Dati po di ba nababailta sa TV na medyo magulo. Sa ngayon wala na po (It's not scary here, ma'am, because they don't really pose danger like before. Remember how they used to report on TV that there were issues here? Right now, we do not hear anything)," said Balidan.
Balidan moved to Pag-asa in 2010. She married on the island in 2012 and now has two children.
The real concerns here are basic. They want facilities to make the island more liveable.
"Ang hinihiling namin dati pa runway, daungan ng barko, pier, 'yun pong hospital. 'Yun lang naman po ang kailangan dito (We've have been asking for a runway, a harbor, a pier, and a hospital)," said Balidan.
The previous administration had alloted money to fix the runway, but the budget was repeatedly deferred as the country pursued an arbitration case against China.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in his visit promised that the island will finally have its facilities. First, they will beach a landing ship into the island to bring in construction materials to build facilities and fix the runway.
China is likely to protest the plans as it has protested Lorenzana's visit. But the defense chief said it shouldn't be a reason to stop the plans for the island. – Rappler.com