PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the improvement of the living conditions and quarters of the soldiers deployed to Pag-asa in the South China Sea in the wake of the reported incident involving Filipino fishermen and the Chinese Coast Guard at a reef close to the island long held by the Philippines.
A total of P1.6 billion has been set aside for the development of the island.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including Thitu which Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana visited and the Philippines calls Pag-asa island.
In recent years Beijing has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands, including on Subi Reef about 26 kilometers (14 nautical miles) from Pag-asa, which can house military facilities.
Lorenzana said construction would start “within the next few weeks” for a quay on Pag-asa where construction materials will be landed for repairs on an existing airstrip on the largest of nine Philippine-garrisoned outcrops in the Spratly archipelago.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys, either wholly or in part.
President Duterte still wants to visit Pag-asa Island, Lorenzana said yesterday as he and top security officials flew yesterday to Pag Asa Island.
Duterte may have canceled his plans to raise a flag on the disputed island on Independence Day, but Lorenzana said the President still hopes to at least spend a night there.
“Gusto niya magpunta rito. Gusto niya nga mag-overnight dito. Sabi niya sa ‘kin, ‘We sleep with our troops,’” Lorenzana said.
“Maybe in the future. Ewan ko kung kailan ‘yun,” he added.
Duterte had planned to fly to Pag-asa Island on June 12, but canceled it to preserve good relations with China.
Lorenzana said that should the trip push through, Communications Secretary Martin Andanar will be present on the trip in his stead.
Lorenzana, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Eduardo Año, and Western Command chief Lieutenant General Raul del Rosario led various activities on the island occupied by Filipino troops and about a hundred civilians.
Also with them were Army chief Lieutenant General Glorioso Miranda and Air Force chief Lieutenant General Edgar Fallorina.
The C130 plane that flew Lorenzana was challenged four times, but he dismissed it as the new “protocol” in the area.
Lorenzana said the challenge appeared to have come from the Chinese “base” in nearby Subi Reef, which has been turned into an artificial island. It is less than 20 nautical miles from Pag-Asa Island and developments there could be seen with the naked eye.
Lorenzana also shrugged off a possible diplomatic protest from China over their visit to Pag-Asa. He insisted that the visit was “a normal one within our territory for a look and see of the conditions of local folks.”
Palawan Governor and Kalayaan Mayor Obet Del Mundo joined the visit to Pag-Asa Island which was followed by a flag raising ceremony
The visit was made two weeks after Duterte ordered the Philippine military to “put structures and the Philippine flag” in areas claimed by the Philippines in the disputed area.
President Duterte is pursuing an “independent foreign policy” that seeks to foster improved relations with countries like China and Russia, while maintaining the Philippines’ strong ties with its oldest and most powerful ally, the United States.