PH runway in Spratlys erodes as China reclaims to build own

PAG-ASA ISLAND, Philippines – On board a truck, Kalayaan town Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon showed visiting Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr and his staff the state of the dilapidated runway in Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

"This is where we should reclaim," Catapang said as the truck reached the eroded end of the macadam runway of the Rancudo Airfield, the country's only airstrip in the disputed region.

Transport aircraft like the Fokker and the Nomad of the Philippine Air Force and the Islander of the Philippine Navy have no trouble landing on the runway that the Philippines built in the 70s. They also use it to fly regular maritime patrol missions in the disputed area.

But the short 1.3-kilometer airstrip can be dangerous for big aircraft such as the C130 cargo plane that brought the military chief to the island.

"I congratulate the pilot because the runway is very short, so we’re always at the tip of the runway when we're about to land or stop. It's quite a short runway so it only justifies [our stand] that we have to improve this runway because it is very difficult to land," Catapang told reporters in an interview here during his visit on May 11.

EROSION: Landing on Pag-asa island is a challenge for pilots of big aircraft such as the C130 cargo plane. Photo by SSg Amable Milay/Philippine Air Force

EROSION: Landing on Pag-asa island is a challenge for pilots of big aircraft such as the C130 cargo plane.

Photo by SSg Amable Milay/Philippine Air Force

PAG-ASA ISLAND. The second biggest island in the disputed South China Sea is home to about a hundred Filipinos. Photo by SSg Amable Milay/Philippine Air Force

PAG-ASA ISLAND. The second biggest island in the disputed South China Sea is home to about a hundred Filipinos.

Photo by SSg Amable Milay/Philippine Air Force

China builds 1st runway in disputed area

Rancudo continues to erode as the Philippine military watches China build its first runway in Spratlys at the Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, one of the 7 areas that China is reclaiming. (Taiwanese-held Itu Aba island also has a runway.) 

Based on the latest images, China's reclamation work is assessed to be up to 3 kilometers long on one side, believed to constitute a runway for China's air assets to be present in a disputed area already dominated by its ships. (READ: 'China to finish construction of airstrip in West PH Sea this year'

"We can see in Fiery Cross Reef. It's clear. It looks like an airstrip. It looks like a harbor. So it must be an airstrip and it must be a harbor," Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, the chief of the Western Command (Wescom) that is in charge of the country's territorial defense, told reporters in a separate interview.

Bito-onon also wants a harbor built in Pag-asa for easier delivery of supplies to the island, including construction materials. "We need a harbor. It's okay if they forget our other wishes. Just give us a harbor and we'll take care of the rest," Bito-onon said. 

Because insurgencies and rebellions remain the biggest threat to national security, the Philippine government and the military neglected the development of the facilities on the island. One of the weakest militaries in Asia, the Philippines is now playing catch up as maritime disputes become a flashpoint in the region.

Funding was recently allocated for the runway repair and the harbor construction, but the projects got delayed as officials debate whether or not it will affect the country's international case against China. (READ: Hitches in repair of PH airfield in Spratlys)

The Philippines is asking an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration to uphold its claim over disputed islands based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which assigns a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone to countries. Officials said they will not develop the islands the country occuppies pending the ruling.

China launched massive reclamation in 7 reefs in the disputed region in the aftermath of Philippine announcement that it would file a case against China. This raised concerns that the move will militarize the disputed area and cut access to the major trade route. (READ: 'PH provoked China's massive reclamation in West PH Sea') 

Reclamation after ITLOS ruling

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff visited the disputed region as China accuses the Philippines of also reclaiming land in Pag-asa – its response to international protests against its reclamation to turn 7 reefs in the South China Sea into artificial islands. (WATCH: VLOG: PH military chief tours disputed South China Sea)

It is the first known trip of a Philippine military chief to the disputed region during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III. 

"Where's the reclamation? There's no change. We are belying what China said that we are doing reclamation work here. There's none. We remain compliant with the Declaration of Conduct," Lopez said.

Pag-asa is a naturally occuring island. While at least one end of the runway was reclaimed, this was done in the 70s – or decades before the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, where China and ASEAN claimant countries agreed to, among others, "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes." 

"And ours was not massive as China's," argued another Philippine security official.

The reefs China reclaimed beginning 2013 are estimated to have destroyed up to 300 acres of corals, according to the Philippines.

RARE VISIT: AFP Chief of Staff Genenral Pio Catapang Jr personally visited for the first time the village of Pag-asa (hope), Municipality of Kayalaan, Palawan on Monday, May 11, 2015. Photo by Vincent Go/Rappler

RARE VISIT: AFP Chief of Staff Genenral Pio Catapang Jr personally visited for the first time the village of Pag-asa (hope), Municipality of Kayalaan, Palawan on Monday, May 11, 2015.

Photo by Vincent Go/Rappler

Confident that the Philippines will win its case against China, Catapang gave assurances that the runway will be repaired and the harbor will be constructed soon.

"As soon as the case is finished, we will now have the moral authority to develop the area. We heard in the news that the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs)... believes that we will be able to win our arbitration in the ITLOS  (International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea)," he said.

"If we are already told by ITLOS that we have a rightful stake in the area, even Mayor Bito-onon can reclaim because this is his municipality. He has the right," said Catapang. 

The tribunal will hold oral arguments on the case in July. A ruling is expected next year. – Rappler.com