AFP chief visits Pag-asa Island
PAG-ASA ISLAND— Armed Forces chief of staff General Gregorio Catapang Jr. visited the municipality of Pag-asa, a part of the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), on Monday.
Catapang, who is the first AFP chief to visit the island under the Aquino administration, dismissed that his move was meant to spark a reaction from China.
“We were invited by the mayor to visit and at the same time it is a farewell visit to the troops because I am just about to retire. I want to see our troops here and look into their welfare and at the same time coordinate with the mayor with what we could do at the Armed Forces for Pag-asa,” he said in a press briefing here.
“I wanted to visit Palawan because of the recent snap elections…and of course, for the longest time, I wanted to visit this place and this has long been planned. Na overtaken by events lang,” he added.
The visit comes amid China’s aggressive behavior in the disputed seas. Significant progress on the reclamation activities around the West Philippine Sea has been made in recent months based on satellite images by the military.
The AFP chief and his entourage flew via a C-130 cargo plane to Puerto Princesa from Manila and refueled for a few minutes before it left for Pag-asa Island.
‘Good tourism effort’
Catapang mentioned the idea of opening the place to tourism, a long time idea of Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr.
“The mayor has concrete plans for it. We will just reinforce it. What we want to happen is from Palawan we can pass by Patag Island, Lawak, Likas then Pag-asa. From Pag-asa we can go back via Panata, Kota island and Ayungin Shoal and it can be a good tourism effort lalo na kung mga yacht,” the military chief said.
Catapang also flew over the other detachments claimed by the Philippines in the Kalayaan Island Group.
“Before we landed we saw the reclamation in Subi reef and it’s really enormous. Ang ginawa natin kanina we passed by Patag Island and then Lawak and then Likas and then Pag-asa Island,” he said.
On the way back to Puerto Princesa, the C-130 plane which carried Catapang and his entourage flew over Panata Island, Kota and Ayungin Shoal.
Catapang said China did not challenge the plane on their way here. Recently, the Philippine military cited at least six incidents wherein China drove away Philippine Navy and Air Force planes on patrol over
the West Philippine Sea.
The AFP chief emphasized that Pagasa Island, which has other claimants including China, belongs to the Philippines.
“I’m visiting this place to establish the fact that Pag-asa is a municipality of Palawan and it is a province of the Republic of the Philippines. Therefore Pag-asa is a territory of the Philippines,” he said.
Pag-asa Island is the largest of the islands that make up the Kalayaan Island Group, and is the second largest in the whole of Spratlys and is a fifth-class municipality with about 300 residents and soldiers stationed there. The island, located 480 kilometers off the coast of Palawan, measures 32.7 hectares.
Pag-asa was once a military installation that was later opened to civilian settlement. It is one of the poorest villages in the Philippines and has an airstrip, a small clinic and a small school. It serves as the town proper for 34 years as it is the only island in the Spratlys that is inhabited by Filipinos.
A symbolic fun run participated by military officials, local government officials and civilians was also held on Catapang’s visit.
Aside from the fun run, a boodle fight for lunch among the military officials, local government officials and civilians took place.
Catapang and his entourage also inspected Pag-asa’s facilities, including the runway, a 1.3-kilometer airstrip that badly needs repair. To maintain a moral high ground in the arbitration case it filed against China, the Philippines has been prohibiting construction and repair in its facilities in the Philippine-claimed detachments.
A turnover of donations by non-government organizations, such as school supplies, solar lights and generator, was also held.
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