Pag-asa Island tourism development plan possible, says DFA
A spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Sunday weighed in on talk about the possibility of developing a disputed island in the Spratlys into a tourism destination, saying “what is ours is ours.”
Raul Hernandez said “the Philippines must bring progress and development to Pag-asa, which is part of the municipality of Kalayaan [in Palawan]. It is an obligation of the government to the Filipinos living on Kalayaan.”
He told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that “the Philippines exercises territorial sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) and over the municipality of Kalayaan, including Pag-asa Island.”
“The development of Pag-asa, which includes activities like the construction of a ferry pier, is a state function. The task must proceed as scheduled,” Hernandez said. “What is ours is ours. That is the foreign policy of the Philippines on the West Philippine Sea.”
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin was asked by reporters if he supported a Philippine plan to develop Pag-asa into a tourist destination in spite of objections by China to any such development.
“Yes, why not? It’s our territory,” Gazmin replied. “Since we have a mayor there, why should we need to ask for permission from another country?”
The reporters’ question was prompted by a proposal by Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Biton-onon for the construction by the Philippine Ports Authority with the help of the Philippine Navy of a “beaching ramp” to allow “ro-ro” (roll-on roll-off) ships to beach and unload their cargo directly on the island’s shore.
Currently, people and supplies brought in by ships have to be transferred to small boats while at sea since the ships cannot come to shore.
Because these boats cannot also beach, the residents again have to haul the supplies and wade in water for several meters to bring the supplies to the shore.
The mayor would not say how much the construction would cost. He also did not give other specifics. But he said the beaching ramp was expected to be completed within the year.
Biton-onon said the project should not stoke any diplomatic tension, insisting the ramp only seeks to provide the island’s residents with some convenience in transportation, although he raised the possibility of the construction of a modern port on the island.
Hernandez said on Sunday the planned construction of a pier on Pag-asa would be a clear exercise of Philippine sovereignty. The town, through its duly elected mayor, is exercising that sovereignty, he said.
“The pier will facilitate the delivery of basic necessities and government services for the Filipinos [on] Pag-asa,” Hernandez said.
Asked for comment, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said the Philippines should “refrain from any actions that may complicate or magnify the [Spratlys] dispute and destabilize the South China Sea.”
Zhang Hua, the embassy’s spokesperson, reiterated that China had “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands [the Spratlys] and their adjacent waters.”
“It is in the common and fundamental interest of all the countries in this region to safeguard the stability [in] the South China Sea,” Zhang told the Inquirer. “We hope the concerned countries will observe the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”
No PH-Viet exercises
Hong Lei, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Thursday that China “opposes any country’s illegal activities that infringe upon China’s sovereignty over the Nansha Islands.”
Hong issued the statement in reaction to reports that the Philippines and Vietnam—among the six countries that claim parts or all of the Spratlys—had agreed to stage joint military exercises in the West Philippine Sea and conduct joint patrols on their maritime borders.
The agreement was reportedly made during the March 11-14 visit to Hanoi of Philippine Navy officials, led by Flag Officer in Command Vice Admiral Alexander Pama.
On Sunday, Pama denied the report. “I want to clarify that there is no agreement between the Vietnam (People’s) Navy and our Navy that we will have so-called war games,” he said in a radio interview. With a report from Dona Z. Pazzibugan