PH to turn Pag-asa into tourist attraction
PAG-ASA ISLAND, West Philippine Sea — The government has set aside P1.6 billion to turn the biggest Philippine-held island in the Spratlys into a tourist attraction and marine research center, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Friday.
Lorenzana visited here along with the top echelon of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, including AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año, Philippine Army chief Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Edgar Fallorina, and Western Command chief Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario.
He was also accompanied by Palawan Gov. Jose Alvarez and representatives of government agencies involved in Pag-asa’s development.
“The reason we are here is to check the area because our President wants a lot done here… The President said, ‘Do it already’ and that we should not tarry,” Lorenzana told Pag-asa residents. “We have already set aside money to repair the runway and, once that is finished, many people will come here because this is a tourist attraction. The beaches here are beautiful.”
Besides repairing the runway, Lorenzana said the government also planned to put up a fishport, radio station, power plant, desalination plant, an ice plant, while the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will set up a marine research facility.
While P1.6 billion will be set aside to develop Pag-asa Island, Lorenzana said the seven other islands in the Spratlys controlled by the Philippines will also get P20 million each to develop the structures there.
Lorenzana downplayed suggestions that the building projects would irk China.
“They’ve filed (diplomatic) protests before and we’ve also protested. We just answer each other. Although we are managing the issues through protests and dialogue, I don’t think there will be any untoward incident,” Lorenzana said.
“As I told the Chinese ambassador, we’ve been here since the late 60s and in 1971 we constructed the runway,” he added.
Lorenzana also pointed out that the Chinese had developed Subi Reef, which is 26 kilometers (14 nautical miles) from Pag-asa, into an island with facilities.
“You’ve seen the other side.. you saw Subi Reef. We are the ones who are being left behind here,” Lorenzana said. “Vietnam has also built up (their islands) so we should have done this before.”
Lorenzana said the Philippines put on hold its plans for the Spratlys after it filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which last year ruled in its favor.
“So, now that that is finished, I think we could already resume and that is also what our President wants—to improve the facilities here,” he said.
Lorenzana said that the construction should begin immediately before the rainy season starts in July.
“The Philippine Navy has a plan for the beaching of (dock landing ships) that will carry the construction materials,”he said.
“The gravel, sand and cement that will be used here will come from Palawan or Luzon. So, you can expect the help of our government to arrive,” he added.
While flying over the disputed region aboard a C295 aircraft, the Chinese military “challenged” through radio Lorenzana’s party.
The Chinese allegedly told the plane pilots that they were entering Chinese airspace and that they should leave to avoid any “miscalculation.”
“That’s just normal. Whenever an aircraft comes here to resupply (Filipinos in Pag-asa), they always challenge, and we always tell them also that we are flying over Philippine territory,” Lorenzana said.
Lorenzana said that it had become “protocol” for the Chinese in Subi Reef to challenge Philippine aircraft as they fly near the reef before they land on Pag-asa.
“That’s procedural. We also reply that we are flying over our territory so we just answer each other. There is no untoward incident,” he added.
Lorenzana doubted that the Chinese would file a formal diplomatic protest because of his visit, which he said was a normal trip within Philippine territory.
But the trip came shortly after the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) confirmed it was investigating allegations by a group of Filipino fishermen who said their vessel was fired upon by the Chinese Coast Guard as they sailed on the Spratly archipelago on March 27.
“(Princess Johann) was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese coast guards on board,” a PCG statement said.
The armed speedboat approached the Filipino vessel after it dropped anchor about 3.7 kilometers (two nautical miles) off the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll, it said. “The crew hid and eventually cut their anchor line and fled the area,” the statement added.
Representatives at the Chinese Embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment on Friday.
If confirmed the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since President Duterte was elected in mid-2016.
Both the PCG and military are investigating the incident.
China claims most of the South China Sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys either wholly or in part. —WITH REPORTS FROM AP AND AFP
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