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PH starts repairs on Pag-asa airstrip

/ 07:25 AM May 27, 2018

LONG-NEEDED UPGRADE A May 17 satellite photo (left) from the Washington-based think tank, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, shows two barges off the western tip of the airstrip on Pag-asa Island dredging the seabed to repair the dilapidated runway. The May 16 photo at right shows a closer view of one of the barges at work on the 1.3-kilometer crumbling coral airstrip that has become dangerous to aircraft.

The Philippines has started planned upgrades and the repair of the dilapidated runway on Pag-asa (international name: Thitu), the biggest island controlled by Filipino troops in the West Philippine Sea, according to a Washington-based think tank.

Work on the “crumbling airstrip” of Pag-asa appears to have started, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on Saturday.

In a brief statement, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said: “The repair of port facilities in Pag-asa is consistent with our national sovereignty and jurisdiction.”

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A military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity would neither confirm nor deny the Amti report, but said that maintenance work on the airstrip had always been done, “otherwise the runway would shorten.”

Amti said satellite images from May 17 showed two barges off the western edge of the runway, which has been eroded over the years.

“It appears that a grab dredger, consisting of a crane with a clamshell bucket, is installed on the smaller barge to the west, while the other carries a backhoe. Loose sediment from dredging can be seen in the water around the two barges and freshly deposited sand is visible along the northern edge of the runway,” Amti said.

It said this dredging method was similar to what Vietnam, another territorial claimant in Spratlys, had been doing at some of its outposts.

“While still harmful to the marine environment, it affects surrounding reefs at a smaller scale and is far less environmentally destructive than the suction cutter dredging undertaken by China, which destroyed thousands of acres of reef from late 2013 to early 2017,” it said, referring to Beijing’s artificial island-building spree.

9 PH-occupied islands

Pag-asa is one of the nine Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, inhabited by about a hundred civilians and a small number of troops. The Philippines was the first to build an island runway among claimants in the Spratlys.

In April 2017, the Philippine government announced that it would repair the runway on Pag-asa and construct a beach ramp or a port to allow ships to bring in construction materials.

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Later that year, then Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año cited a nonbinding agreement between China and Southeast Asian countries that allowed the improvement of areas already occupied by claimants, but not new occupations.

Repairs of the eroded airstrip have been stalled for a long time over fears it would displease China. The previous administration had allotted P1.6 billion for the upgrades.

The eroded 1.3-kilometer coral airstrip built in the 1970s has become risky for landing big planes, including several whose tires blew out due to intense braking to prevent them from overshooting the short runway.

Muddy problem

The airstrip also becomes too muddy whenever it rains and pilots have to wait at least three days before they can land.

Early this month, the Inquirer published several close-up photos showing other claimants outpacing the Philippines in fortifying its outposts in the West Philippine Sea. But all their efforts still pale in comparison to China’s garrison-building.

Amti’s satellite images from February 2017 show minor upgrades in Pag-asa last year, including at least seven new buildings and a “fresh coat of paint” on the island’s basketball court.

A satellite photo on May 1, shows a new round-roofed shelter had been built on the eastern size of Rizal Reef (Commodore).

Amti also noted that an empty field on Lawak Island (Nanshan) had been converted into a helipad as of Feb. 20 this year. On Panata Island (Loaita Cay), a new hexagonal shelter was spotted from a May 17 satellite image.

The rest of the Philippines’ outposts in the Spratlys—Kota Island (Loaita), Parola Cay (Northeast Cay), Likas Island (West York), Patag Island (Flat) and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal)—showed no visible upgrades, Amti said.

Lit like Makati

A former commander of the Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom), which oversees the West Philippine Sea, lamented how the Philippines was “far behind” its neighbors in maintaining its outposts in the Spratlys.

“[Our neighbors] have piers and they have long runways similar to international airports. At night we have no lights while theirs is like Makati,” said the former commander, who spoke to the Inquirer on condition of anonymity.

He also said the fear of China had further emboldened the Asian giant to encroach upon the country’s territory.

“As a former Wescom commander, I feel our efforts defending, preserving our territorial integrity became useless,” he said.

“We stood our ground and we were aggressive then—David against Goliath. We saw that they hesitated in bullying us because if they did, they knew we were willing to sacrifice our lives,” he said. “They also knew the international repercussion if they did massacre us. The whole allied nations will gang up on them. They will lose. All we need is to show them we have balls!”

The former Wescom chief said China would not risk starting an armed confrontation but the Philippines must assert the UN-backed international tribunal’s ruling throwing out Beijing’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

‘Psywar’ already lost

He said China knew it would face international sanctions if it made hostile acts against Filipino forces, but Manila already lost the “psywar” (psychological warfare) to Beijing.

“China won’t wallop our islands just like that because other countries will respond,” he said.

He said, however, the country’s allies, including the United States, cannot be expected to start any fight with China. “If you look at the Mutual Defense Treaty, our ally will only come in when we are attacked but they won’t start the fight for us,” he added.

He also disputed the President’s notion that war was the only option to settle the territorial claims.

“There are diplomatic means,” he said. “You can also boost your defenses to show the aggressor that you are willing to put up a fight. Even if you are at a disadvantage, you will face them head on. It’s called patriotism.”

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TAGS: AMTI, Harry Roque, Pag-asa airstrop repair, Thitu Island, West Philippine Sea
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