MANILA, Philippines – The government plans more construction projects and official visits to Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as he unveiled the island’s newly finished beaching ramp on Tuesday, June 9.
The beaching ramp, located at the western tip of the island’s unpaved runway, allows for the delivery of large equipment and supplies. In the absence of a pier, the beaching ramp also allows ships to directly offload passengers onto the island, as opposed to dropping anchor 500 meters away and transferring to smaller boats to navigate the shallows.
A new sheltered harbor on the island will be inaugurated by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) on Friday, June 12.
Lorenzana and Naval Forces West chief Commodore Renato David headed a military-led expedition to Pag-asa Island on Tuesday to present the beaching ramp to reporters. The defense chief called it a “historic milestone” in Philippine efforts to take possession of its islets in the West Philippine Sea.
Other claimant states in the West Philippine Sea, especially China, have far outdone the Philippines in building structures and establishing their presence in the area. China has turned 7 reefs also claimed by the Philippines into artificial islands, and militarized them.
One such reclaimed and militarized Chinese outpost, Zamora Reef (internationally known as Subi), lies only 14 nautical miles from Pag-asa Island. The tops of buildings on Zamora are visible on the western horizon from a water tank tower on Pag-asa.
The construction of the beaching ramp began in November 2017, and was supposed to have been completed in September 2018. However, “bad weather, rough seas, and other factors that affect construction” forced the contractor, Luzviminda Engineering, to ask for several extensions.
In the end, the project was delayed by 622 calendar days, the Department of National Defense (DND) said.
Lorenzana earier denied a report that the presence of Chinese fishing vessels functioning as militias around Pag-asa since late 2018 had hampered the construction project.
Despite its own build-up in the West Philippine Sea, China tends to take issue with Philippine efforts to assert its presence in the waters. For instance, the Chinese coast guard has tried to block resupply missions to Philippine naval outposts.
The official visit to inaugurate the beaching ramp took place exactly a year since the Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42214 rammed the Philippine fishing boat Gem-Ver at Recto (Reed) Bank, leaving its 22 Filipino crew marooned. They were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Does the contsruction on Pag-asa Island rock the boat with China?
“Not really, because we’ve been here a long time. I kept emphasizing to the previous ambassador of China that we have been here since, in fact, the late 1960s,” Lorenzana told reporters on Tuesday.
But with this new feature, the government can begin establishing a more significant presence in the West Philippine Sea, at least on Pag-asa Island itself.
“The purpose of this is just to develop this area into a viable community,” Lorenzana said, adding that besides the armed Navy and Air Force contingents posted on Pag-asa, there are no plans to install heavy armaments to militarize the island.
Pag-asa Island is home to roughly 200 civilian Filipinos.
Worth P268 million, the beaching ramp is the first of 4 phases of a project to build a “Basing Support System” for the Armed Forces of the Philippines on the island.
All the succeeding phases depend on the beaching ramp for hauling in supplies and equipment. Now, the second phase of repairing the eroded, unpaved runway on the island can begin.
Phase 3 will be the paving of the runway and its apron, and Phase 4 will involve other new facilities for the Air Force.
These succeeding projects worth a total P1.3 billion are still up for bidding, Lorenzana said.
The DOTr, meanwhile, has built a fisherman’s shelter on the island, and plans to put up an ice plant so fishermen can deliver their catch to Puerto Princesa, 480 kms away, without risking spoilage.
Other planned projects include military barracks, schoolhouses, electricity, and a telecommunication tower, Lorenzana said.
“Because [the beaching ramp] is now operational, we can go full blast already,” the defense chief added. – Rappler.com
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