Chi­nese chal­lenge Phl de­fense chief’s plane

The Philippine Star - - FRONT PAGE - By JAIME LAUDE and MICHAEL PUNONGBAYAN

A mil­i­tary air­craft fly­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Delfin Loren­zana and Armed Forces chief Gen. Ed­uardo Año over the West Philip­pine Sea re­ceived a warn­ing yes­ter­day from Chi­nese forces to leave the airspace.

The Philip­pine Air Force (PAF) C-130 trans­port air­craft was cir­cling over Zamora or Subi Reef for its fi­nal ap­proach to the un­paved Ran­cudo air­field on Pag-Asa Is­land in the Spratlys when it re­ceived a ra­dio warn­ing from the Chi­nese to stay away from the area.

The PAF pi­lot re­sponded that the air­craft was fly­ing in Philip­pine airspace.

Loren­zana down­played the in­ci­dent. “It’s al­ready nor­mal be­cause each time our planes con­duct re­sup­ply op­er­a­tions here they are chal­lenged (by the Chi­nese),” he said.

“We replied that we are fly­ing over Philip­pine ter­ri­tory,” Loren­zana later told re­porters.

AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Resti­tuto Padilla said the Chi­nese told the Filipino pi­lots to stay away from Subi to avoid a mis­cal­cu­la­tion. “As be­fore, (the pi­lots) were

once again chal­lenged as they made their pat­tern of land­ing,” Padilla said.

From be­ing merely a “seabed” in “in­ter­na­tional wa­ters” un­der the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Subi Reef has meta­mor­phosed into a bustling ar­ti­fi­cial is­land, with mas­sive struc­tures, a 3,000-me­ter run­way, two ports, gun em­place­ments, and radar domes.

There were re­ports the Chi­nese have in­stalled a mis­sile de­fense sys­tem on the reef. Based on UNCLOS, there can be no ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters for fea­tures built on the seabed. Subi Reef is about 40 nau­ti­cal miles from Pag-asa Is­land.

With Loren­zana and Año on the plane were Army com­mand­ing gen­eral Lt. Gen. Glo­rioso Mi­randa, Western Com­mand (Wescom) com­man­der Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario, and other AFP of­fi­cials and mem­bers of the me­dia. The air­craft touched down at around 8 a.m. The DND chief at­tended a flag cer­e­mony along with 45 mil­i­tary of­fi­cials and per­son­nel sta­tioned on the is­land.

The group, with Palawan Gov. Jose Al­varez and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Bureau of Fish­eries and Aquatic Re­sources (BFAR), toured the is­land.

On the West side of Pag-asa fac­ing the West Philip­pine Sea, Loren­zana per­son­ally wit­nessed the pres­ence from a dis­tance of four to five Chi­nese Coast Guard ships.

In a state­ment, the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs (DFA) said it wel­comed ef­forts of the De­part­ment of National De­fense and the AFP to se­cure Pag-asa Is­land.

“We de­fer to the DND and the Armed Forces on how best to ful­fill their Con­sti­tu­tional man­dates with re­spect to im­prov­ing the safety, wel­fare, liveli­hood and per­sonal se­cu­rity of Filipinos in the Palawan mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Kalayaan,” the DFA said.

‘Un­safe side’

Sol­diers as­signed on Pag-asa is­land told The STAR they call the Eastern side of the is­land the Philip­pine side and the Western part the “un­safe side” as they wouldn’t want to call it the Chi­nese side.

In re­marks, Loren­zana as­sured govern­ment troops the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Duterte and the AFP are look­ing after their wel­fare despite the Chi­nese men­ace.

The Chi­nese, he ex­plained, “be­lieve that this is theirs, they protest to say that they do not want what we are do­ing here.”

The Philip­pines main­tains that the is­land group in­clud­ing Pag-asa is part of its ter­ri­tory, which Filipinos oc­cu­pied as early as the late 1960s, and on which a run­way was built in 1975.

“I don’t think I should give them any message. This is just a nor­mal visit within our ter­ri­tory, we be­lieve and we know that this is our ter­ri­tory and I am just vis­it­ing to look at the con­di­tions of our peo­ple here,” Loren­zana said.

Re­act­ing to China’s chal­leng­ing the PAF’s flight over Subi, National Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Her­mo­genes Esperon Jr. said the ad­min­is­tra­tion takes se­ri­ously the Chi­nese action.

“We mind and we re­spond ap­pro­pri­ately. We have our chal­lenges and an­swers where pro­to­cols to be made if it is bad enough that that could be the ba­sis for some note ver­bales,” Esperon said after Pres­i­dent Duterte’s visit to Rus­sian ship Varyag yes­ter­day.

“A chal­lenge is not some­thing that is re­ally pos­i­tive. But a chal­lenge could be just to iden­tify your­self but it could also mean that you’re chal­leng­ing be­cause you think that’s your ter­ri­tory,” he added.

Asked if Duterte would go to Pag-asa is­land in the fu­ture, Esperon said: “In the fu­ture? Let me an­swer you that in the fu­ture.”

Pressed if the Pres­i­dent would spend a night in the is­land, the national se­cu­rity ad­viser replied: “Why not? But not now.”

P1.6-B Pag-asa dev’t

Mean­while, Lo­ran­zana also re­vealed the ad­min­is­tra­tion has set aside at least P1.6 bil­lion to de­velop Pag-asa.

He said the build­ing of a beach­ing ramp would be pri­or­i­tized and hope­fully done by July this year so that con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als like gravel and ce­ment as well as heavy equip­ment could be brought to the is­land by sea.

He told re­porters in a press brief­ing that BFAR also in­tends to build a fish port in the area.

The govern­ment also wants to put up a ra­dio sta­tion, an ice plant, wa­ter de­sali­na­tion fa­cil­ity, homes for sol­diers sta­tioned in the is­land, and put up a sewage sys­tem.

“We will de­velop this into a tourism area and marine re­search (fa­cil­ity),” Loren­zana said.

“Th­ese are our plans, the plans of the Pres­i­dent and he said do it now and do not de­lay. That’s why we are here now,” he stressed.

“We’ve been here since 1971, and our flag has been planted way back in the 1970s. We were here first, the others just fol­lowed,” he said of the coun­try’s claim on the Kalayaan Is­lands.

Loren­zana said the de­vel­op­ment of Pag-asa has long been de­layed be­cause of the ar­bi­tra­tion case filed by the Philip­pines that re­sulted in a mora­to­rium on the im­ple­men­ta­tion of projects.

The DND chief said Pres­i­dent Duterte’s treat­ment of China shows that he is just try­ing to de­velop friends around the neigh­bor­hood.

“China is the most pow­er­ful coun­try in our neigh­bor­hood, eco­nom­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily, and we are try­ing to man­age the is­sue and talk to them one-on-one bi­lat­er­ally, set­tle this dis­pute in the South China Sea,” he said.

“I be­lieve that the Pres­i­dent is right in talk­ing to the Chi­nese lead­er­ship on how to man­age the is­sue here in South China Sea,” he added.

The sec­ond big­gest is­land next only to the Tai­wanese-oc­cu­pied Itu Aba, Pag-asa is a fifth class mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Palawan ex­er­cis­ing over­all ju­ris­dic­tion over the coun­try’s regime of is­lands in the dis­puted Spratlys re­gion.

Loren­zana’s trip to Pag-asa came only a day after re­ports came out about Chi­nese coast guards fir­ing warn­ing shots to drive a group of Bataan-based Filipino fish­er­men from Union Bank. The in­ci­dent, which re­port­edly hap­pened on March 27, in­volved Chi­nese coast guards se­cur­ing the re­claimed Gaven Reef.

Philip­pine Coast Guard spokesper­son Com­man­der Ar­mand Balilo con­firmed re­ceiv­ing in­for­ma­tion about the Chi­nese ha­rass­ment of Filipino fish­er­men around Union Bank.

He said a Chi­nese coast guard speed­boat with guns and car­ry­ing seven per­son­nel fired shots at the fishing boat Princess Jo­hann, which is owned and op­er­ated by Dion­i­sio Caba­cun­gan.

The Chi­nese re­port­edly fired warn­ing shots when the Filipino boat dropped an­chor some two nau­ti­cal miles from Union Bank. The crew pan­icked, cut off their an­chor line and fled the area.

Balilo said they were not able to in­ter­view the fish­er­men as they had al­ready re­turned to the sea. “We were only able to com­mu­ni­cate with them via ra­dio. But ac­cord­ing to the boat cap­tain, the Chi­nese Coast Guard did not di­rectly fire shots at them,” he said.

Viet­namese and Chi­nese forces have al­ready oc­cu­pied most of the mar­itime fea­tures within the Union Bank, a wide body of sub­merged fea­tures right within the coun­try’s 200-nau­ti­cal mile ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone.

Malaysia, Tai­wan and Brunei also have over­lap­ping mar­itime claims in the re­gion. Only Brunei has no mil­i­tary pres­ence in the ar­eas it claims.

AP

Chi­nese struc­tures and an airstrip on Zamora or Subi Reef in the Spratly is­lands in the South China Sea are seen from a Philip­pine Air Force C-130 trans­port plane yes­ter­day. In­set shows De­fense Sec­re­tary Delfin Loren­zana tour­ing Pag-asa Is­land near the reef. The visit yes­ter­day was aimed to as­sert the coun­try’s claim to the heart­land of a dis­puted area where China is be­lieved to have added mis­siles on man-made is­lands. A UN court has in­val­i­dated China’s ter­ri­to­rial claim in the South China Sea. The dis­pute is ex­pected to be dis­cussed at the 20th Asean sum­mit next week.

EPA

Philip­pine Air Force mil­i­tary air­craft stand ready after land­ing on Pa­gasa is­land in the Spratlys dur­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Delfin Loren­zana’s visit yes­ter­day.

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