Pag-asa Island, part of Palawan province, in the disputed West Philippine Sea is controlled by the Philippines despite Chinese claims of sovereignty over it.
STAR/File photo
Palace: Trip to Pag-asa meant to improve life in distant Palawan town
Alexis Romero (philstar.com) - April 23, 2017 - 4:55pm

MANILA, Philippines — The visit of security officials to Pag-asa Island was routine and was in line with international law, Malacañang said Sunday after China expressed alarm over their trip to the island in the disputed Spratly chain.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and top military officials visited Pag-asa Island in Palawan province on Friday to inspect the facilities in the area, which is inhabited by about 200 people.

The visit was meant to enable officials to assess what improvements can be done in the island, the second largest in the Spratlys.

The government has earmarked around P1.6 billion to develop Pag-asa and is planning to build a beaching ramp, fish port, radio station, ice plant, water desalination facility, sewage facility and houses for soldiers.

The visit did not sit well with China, which claims historical rights over almost 90 percent of areas in the South China Sea, including Pag-asa.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said China was “gravely concerned about and dissatisfied” with the trip, which he claimed went against the consensus reached by Manila and Beijing “to properly deal with the South China Sea issue."

Lu also urged the Philippines to “faithfully follow the consensus” between the two countries, “maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea” and “promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations.”

Routine patrol

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said Lorenzana’s visit to Pag-asa was just part of a “routine” patrol in the South China Sea, which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea.   

“The Philippines has long been undertaking customary and routine maritime patrol and overflight in the West Philippine Sea which are lawful activities under international law. Such flights will likewise enable us to reach our municipality,” Abella said in a statement.

Abella said the visit was also in line with the government’s aim to improve the quality of life of Filipinos in the island.

“The visit of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to Pag-asa Island is part of the efforts to improve the safety, welfare, livelihood of Filipinos residing and living in the municipality of Kalayaan which is part of the province of Palawan,” the presidential spokesman said.

China has used a similar argument to justify reclamation activities in the South China Sea.

China challenges PAF planes

While on its way to Pag-asa, the military plane carrying Lorenzana and military officials were warned by Chinese forces to leave the area but the pilot insisted that they were in Philippine airspace.

Lorenzana has downplayed the incident, saying Philippine air assets conducting resupply operations usually receive warnings from Chinese forces.

During President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China last October, Manila and Beijing agreed to hold dialogues on the South China Sea dispute, a move that Chinese officials claimed signaled the “full recovery” of the friendship between the two countries.

The Duterte administration’s decision to hold dialogues with China on the dispute is a departure from the policy of former President Benigno Aquino III, who preferred that the issue be tackled through multilateral channels.  

In 2013, the Philippines challenged the legality of China’s expansive claim in the South China Sea before an international arbitral tribunal in Hague.

The court decided in favor of the Philippines last year, ruling that China’s maritime claim has no legal basis.

China has refused to recognize the ruling, dismissing it as a “mere piece of paper” that would not affect its territorial rights.  

Duterte has said he is ready to set aside the arbitral ruling to enhance the Philippines’ ties with China. He stressed, though, that he would not bargain away the Philippines' maritime claims and that there would be a time when he would bring up the arbitral ruling before the Chinese government.

PAG-ASA ISLAND SOUTH CHINA SEA DISPUTE WEST PHILIPPINE SEA
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