MANILA, Philippines – National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr said there are plans to fix the Philippines' runway in disputed Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"You just wait. We are repairing that," Esperon told reporters after a Senate hearing this week.
Pag-Asa Island is the 2nd biggest naturally occuring island in the South China Sea and the only one with civilian presence.
A community of about a hundred Filipinos reside on the island that serves as the seat of power of the Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys) that is attached to the province of Palawan. It has a town hall, a school, and a communication tower, among others. (READ: The residents of Pag-Asa: Life on a disputed island)
The administration of Benigno Aquino III llocated a budget to repair the dilapidated runway there, but the project was repeatedly deferred over fears that it would provoke unwanted actions from China. (READ: PH's runway erodes as China reclaims to build own)
Small planes have no trouble landing on the short 1.3-kilometer airstrip but it can be dangerous for big aircraft such as the C130 military cargo planes. Rain could cause the cancellation of trips there, as what happened to the scheduled trip of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and a number of lawmakers in early March.
Warning from US think tank
Esperon's announcement comes as new photos emerge of China's construction in 3 reefs where it built runways – Mischief, Subi, and Fiery Cross. A US-based think tank warned that facilities in what are feared to be military bases are almost complete.
"Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time," warned Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Mischief Reef is a maritime territory that an international court declared last year to be a part of the country's exclusive economic zone. China wrested control of the reef from the Philippine military back in 1994. (READ: Highlights of ruling: China violated PH's sovereign rights)
Subi Reef is very close to Pag-Asa Island, where Filipino residents have seen how China's big cranes turned the reef into an island.
Esperon said the Philippines is closely monitoring the developments on the reefs, but said it has yet to be seen if China will turn them into military facilities.
"Our Wescom (Western Command) have pictures similar to that. Indeed the airstrips – 3 to 3.5 kilometers – are there in place. There are radars. But will these be for military use? It could be," said Esperon, former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines..
"Wala pa naman missile doon e (They don't have missiles there yet)," he added.
The current Duterte administration has been downplaying concerns against China's activities in the South China Sea as it prefers to focus on its economic ties with the Asian economic giant.
Critics have expressed concerns, however, that the government's statements could jeopardize the country's claims in the disputed waters. – Rappler.com