China, Philippines argue over defense chief's island visit

24 April, 2017, 05:02 | Author: Brian Mcdaniel

Philippine soldiers stationed at Thitu island stand at attention as they sing as part of the welcome ceremony programme for Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana during a visit to the island in The Spratlys on April 21, 2017.

Their visit Friday was aimed to assert the country's claim to the heartland of the disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands.

The New York Times reports that the Chinese challenged the flight via radio at least four times while the aircraft was on route to the island, though the Philippine defense secretary played down those claims, saying it was standard protocol.

The incident comes two weeks after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called on Philippine troops to move to occupy unoccupied features in the South China Sea.

He added that he might go to Pag-asa on June 12 to mark Philippine Independence Day and plant the nation's flag there.

"China didn't file a protest and they even recognized our 200-mile exclusive economic zone", the former president said.

The Philippine authorities are investigating reports that China's coast guard shot at a Filipino fishing boat in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Since then, Duterte said China has allowed Filipinos to fish in waters around the Scarborough Shoal, another outcrop in the South China Sea that Beijing seized in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippine Navy.

In recent years, China has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities.

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Lorenzana said the Chinese warned them that they are entering Chinese territory.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters at a regular briefing that Beijing had "no information" on the matter.

On Pag-asa, known internationally as Thitu, Lorenzana announced that the Philippines would start to develop the island, the second-largest in the Spratly archipelago, with plans for a wharf and reinforcing and extending the partly-eroded dirt airstrip.

Lorenzana explained that the P1.2 billion will be used in the fix of the 1.3 kilometer runway while the P400 million will go to the construction of the port.

The Philippines and China forged diplomatic ties in 1975 during the term of President Ferdinand Marcos, who opened formal links a year later with at the time the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.

The President instead has directed the military to fortify the islands in the West Philippines now occupied by Filipino soldiers.

He asked his fellow senators to support Senate Bill 944, titled "Declaring Pag-asa Island Cluster in the Municipality of Kalayaan, Province of Palawan as an Ecotourism Destination and Protected Area, Providing Funds Therefor, and for Other Purposes". Three of the artificial islands were built with runways, along with buildings, towers, radars and more recently weapons systems, to the consternation of other Asian claimant governments and the United States, which insists on freedom of navigation in global waters.

Earlier in March, Chinese oceanographic survey activities at Benham Rise, an underwater plateau east of the Philippine island of Luzon, in the Philippine Sea, drew scrutiny.


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