Tag Archive: spratly islands


Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Plans to turn Philippine-occupied features on the disputed Spratly Islands have been postponed for at least a year as these coincided with the election season, the territories’ mayor said Thursday.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan town under Palawan province, said the tourism campaign supposed to start this year will “most probably” be launched in 2017, after the new administration has taken over.

Representatives of the Department of Tourism (DoT) were supposed to assess the biggest Philippine-occupied feature, Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, two weeks ago, but cancelled the visit, he said.

“Kinancel, partly because of election… Naabutan kasi ng election ‘yung Senate bill. So after the election ire-refile uli, a new start, pero after that tag-ulan na ‘yun, so most probably 2017 na [ang tourism campaign],” Bito-onon said.

Bito-onon, who himself is running this year for another term as Kalayaan mayor, was referring to the bill filed by Senator Sonny Angara which aims to declare the Pag-Asa Island cluster as an “eco-tourism destination and protected area.”

The bill, which also covers Parola (Northeast Cay), Kota (Loaita), and Panata (Lankiam Cay) islands, entails a call for funding from the DoT.

Overtures for making Kalayaan a tourism attraction were renewed in the past few years, with an eye at further cementing the Philippines’ claim to the islands, reefs, and atolls comprising the town.

These came amid China’s buildup of artificial islands and structures in nearby features, of which some were said to have been opened to tourists recently.

Along calls for tourism in Kalayaan were plans by the national government to repair the deteriorating Rancudo Air Field on Pag-Asa and building a jetty there.

Both construction plans reached bidding stage, but were shelved as the government wants to maintain “moral high ground” in the case filed against China at the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

ITLOS is expected to decide on the case this year, but Bito-onon said this was not a factor in the tourism drive’s delay.

“It’s more due to election,” he said.

Philippine election laws prohibit almost all public works and funding, especially during campaign period.

“Paano mo naman sisimulan ‘yung project kung walang pondo?” Bito-onon said.

Despite this, Bito-onon said he remains hopeful that the tourism project would still move forward.

He said the local government of Kalayaan had already pushed through with its acquisition of a steel-hulled boat, a project aimed at aiding both residents and soon-to-be tourists.

The project has been bidded out and the 22-meter boat worth P10.6 million is expected to be delivered this September, he said.

“This will be used for the safety of travelers,” as well as rescue operations and bringing food, water, and other supplies for residents in times of emergency, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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Japan Self-Defense Forces chief Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano is interested in holding more drills with the Philippines, the Department of National Defense said Friday.

The DND made the announcement while warning that China has reached the point of “militarizing” the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Kawano paid a courtesy call to Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Wednesday, after meeting Armed Forces chief General Hernando Iriberri, according to the DND.

Kawano expressed interest in conducting more exercises, “particularly amphibious landing exercises and amphibious operations,” according to a statement issued by Gazmin’s office.

Gazmin welcomed Kawano’s interest but noted that a “visiting forces agreement” is needed before such activities can be conducted.

Kawano, for his part, assured that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for national security legislation that could expand the JSDF’s activities with the Philippines.

Kawano told Gazmin of the need to share information to address “common security issues” and noted the importance of capacity-building in humanitarian assitance and disaster relief.

During the meeting, Kawano also mentioned that China is trying to change the status quo in the region with its reclamation activities, according to the DND.

In a separate statement, DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez warned that China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea are now in “militarization stage.”

“This is the worst stage of all, this is the militarization stage, and it must be stopped,” DND spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.

Galvez made the remark when asked to comment on Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua’s announcement that China will build various facilities on reefs which it had reclaimed.

Zhao announced earlier this week that Beijing is set to build facilities that would support freedom of navigation, search and rescue, and scientific research.

“Maybe we should ask: ‘For whom are those search and rescue facilities for? Is it for our ships and installations that they are threatening to destroy?'” Galvez said.

“They’ve said one thing and have done another,” the DND spokesman said, apparently referring to China’s project in Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.

It can be recalled that China once declared a construction on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef as a “shelter for fishermen,” though the facility turned into a garrison after a few years.

Aside from Panganiban, China has also done reclamation and construction works in six other reefs in the West Philippine Sea.

Last May, China announced that it will build lighthouses on Calderon (Cuarteron) and Mabini (Johnson South) Reefs — which are both inside the Philippines’ claim line — to “improve navigation safety.”

“Regardless of what supposedly ‘good’details the Chinese leadership informs the peace-focused and rules-based international community, they illegally and blatantly continue with their aggression. These are mere elements of their island building militarization which needs to stop and be dismantled,” Galvez said. (John Roson)

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Poro Point, La Union – The Navy has merged its two regional units guarding the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to boost efficiency in handling maritime issues, a ranking official said Thursday.

Naval Forces West, whose area of operations includes the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group, was merged with Naval Forces North, whose area covers Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Captain Albert Mogol told reporters here.

The merger was a result of Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin’s directive of “addressing a common threat,” Mogol said.

The unified naval group, activated July 6, is now known as Naval Forces North-West.

It has its headquarters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, and operates Task Force 41 from there, while Task Force 11 commanded by Mogol is based here.

Task Force 41 now handles all areas in the West Philippine Sea including Panatag Shoal, while Task Force 11 retained “traditional roles” like patrolling waters of Northern Luzon.

“It’s now the country’s biggest naval task force, [covering] five regions and 24 provinces,” Mogol said of Task Force 41.

Under one command, troops and ships can be easily sent to respond to incidents such as poachers operating off Luzon then speeding away towards Palawan.

“What we want is a more efficient command and control against a common threat,” Mogol said.

The official declined to reveal how many ships and troops are now under Naval Forces North-West, saying only that a “sufficient number” had been dedicated.

‘Eye in the north’

Meanwhile, Mogol said the Navy has also set up an identification system in Batanes to monitor foreign vessels entering the country.

Marines are manning the “littoral monitoring detachment,” which shares a building with the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Astronomical Services Administration outpost since March, he said.

“We have already an eye in the north,” Mogol said, declining to give further details.

Maritime security issues in Batanes flared recently, after the Philippine Coast Guard said Taiwan counterparts engaged them in standoffs near the northern island province. (John Roson)

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Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Residents in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island have started promoting the island as a tourist destination amid tension among countries claiming the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, chief of the Armed Forces’ Western Command, confirmed that the tourism campaign has started albeit at a small scale, and said the military stands ready to help.

“We can help organize tour packages,” Lopez told reporters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

Lopez made the remark after visiting Pag-Asa Island with Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang, other military officials, and reporters last Monday.

During the visit, reporters saw some residents of Pag-Asa — where only fish was peddled before — selling souvenir shirts promoting the island as a tourist spot.

White shirts printed with beaches, starfishes, aerial pictures of Pag-Asa, and other Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratlys are being sold at the Kalayaan municipal hall for P280.

One resident also makes “tuba” (coconut wine) and offers this for P75 a liter to visitors.

Such merchandise were not seen on the island before, until China boosted its presence in the West Philippine Sea.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. Photo by author.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. 2015 photo by author.

Chinese warships and Coast Guard vessels are frequently seen in the disputed waters while construction and reclamation works are ongoing in China-held features including Subi (Zamora) Reef, which is only about 25 kilometers from Pag-Asa.

Residents said they have also been seeing Vietnamese fishing vessels straying near Pag-Asa — particularly at a reef to the island’s east and a sandbar to the north — and carry out dynamite fishing.

Lopez said the military cannot “actually escort” tourists to Pag-Asa because that’s not in its mandate, though helping arrange tours is allowable.

In his visit, Catapang said the military will “reinforce” tourism efforts, though securing visitors would be a joint effort with Coast Guard and local government agencies because Pag-Asa is in “internal waters.”

Tours could be extended to the other Philippine-occupied islands Patag (Flat), Kota (Loaita), Panata (Lankiam), Lawak (Nanshan), Likas (West York), and even Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, he added.

Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said the tourism campaign will go full scale “next year” after the town buys a 25-meter steel-hulled boat for P10 million.

The Pag-Asa airstrip's western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The Pag-Asa airstrip’s western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The boat project, which is aimed at ferrying visitors from a jump-off station from mainland Palawan, comes while the government has yet to repair the airstrip on Pag-Asa.

A chunk of the 1.3-kilometer airstrip’s western edge has eroded into the sea, though small aircraft and military planes can still land.

A “pasalubong” (souvenir) shop and lodge will also be opened on Pag-Asa to cater to tourists, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin on Friday directed military pilots to continue patrols over the West Philippine Sea despite China’s challenging of Philippine planes.

Gazmin gave the order after expressing concern that China appears to be already practicing an “air defense identification zone,” or ADIZ, over the disputed waters.

“Ito ay cause for concern sapagkat parang pina-practice ng China na mayroon nang ADIZ although wala pang formal declaration,” Gazmin said during a briefing of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council.

“Ang directive natin ay continue ‘yung kanilang (pilots) normal na trabaho, hindi dapat natatakot sa mga babalang ganito,” he added.

The defense chief’s remarks came after Armed Forces Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez told a Senate hearing Thursday that China warned Air Force and Navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the West Philippine Sea.

“They are acting as if they already have an ADIZ in the area,” defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said Thursday night.

China first declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea in November 2013, covering a group of islets occupied by Japan.

It demanded that all countries with aircraft passing through the zone submit flight plans, or otherwise face “defensive measures.”

The move caused a stir not only in Japan but also in the Philippines, whose exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the west covers some islands and reefs being claimed by China.

Officials expressed concern that China might next declare an ADIZ over the West Philippine Sea, including territories which the Philippines has been occupying for decades.

China’s challenging of Philippine military planes, done via radio, were reported after Manila released aerial photos showing Beijing’s reclamation and construction works on some reefs in the disputed waters.

Last March 30, Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said China has stepped up construction and reclamation on at least seven reefs, including three that are inside the Philippines’ EEZ.

Gazmin said the DND has already reported its observations to the proper agency and will continue to monitor China’s activities. (John Roson)

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Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japan Defense Minister Gen Nakatani signing a memorandum on defense cooperation. (Japan MoD photo)

Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Japan Defense Minister Gen Nakatani signing a memorandum on defense cooperation. (Japan MoD photo)

The Philippines submitted to Japan a list of defense equipment that it plans to acquire from the latter, amid the two countries’ common maritime dispute with China.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed the list’s submission Monday, after returning from Japan where he met with his counterpart Defense Minister Gen Nakatani.

“Lahat ng magagamit to address our maritime security (Everything we can use to address our maritime security),” Gazmin said in a text message, when asked what items were on the list.

The list covers equipment for capabilities in ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), HADR (humanitarian and disaster response), and lift, defense department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said for his part.

Last January 31, the Department of National Defense and Japan’s Ministry of Defense issued a statement, saying Gazmin and Nakatani signed a “Memorandum on Defense Cooperation and Exchanges.”

In the memorandum, the defense chiefs “concurred” on, among others, “to explore a possibility of cooperation in the area of defense equipment and technology.”

The two countries “will start working-level discussions” on the matter, according to the statement.

‘Rare agreement’

“This is a very rare occassion, if not the first, [for] the Japanese to sign such a memorandum,” Galvez said.

The memorandum came months after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration re-interpreted Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution in July 2014.

The Constitution, enacted in 1947 after Japan’s involvement in World War II, was re-interpreted to allow the country to protect itself thru a “collective” defense with allies.

Japan also adopted what it calls the “Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology” in April 2014.

Navy list

The Philippine Navy submitted to the DND a list of assets that it plans to acquire from Japan on December 26, spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo said Monday.

The force is looking at a possible acquisition of patrol vessels from Japan, Navy vice commander Rear Admiral Caesar Taccad said on December 17.

Humanitarian and disaster response equipment like transport ships and sea planes are also in the list, Arevalo said on December 22.

Common sea problems

Japan’s re-interpretation of its Constitution followed China’s deployment of Coast Guard ships and establishment of an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) in an area encompassing the Japan-occupied Senkaku Islands.

China lays claim to those islands and calls them “Diaoyu Islands.”

China has also been deploying Coast Guard ships around Philippine-occupied parts of the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands Group off Palawan and the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales, areas which they are now preventing Filipino fishermen from entering.

China claims all of the Spratly Islands, which it calls “Nansha Islands,” and Scarborough Shoal, which it calls “Huangyan Island.”

Capability building

During their meeting, Gazmin and Nakatani also agreed on having the Japan Self -Defense Forces (JSDF) help the Armed Forces of the Philippines build capabilities in humanitarian and disaster response (HADR).

“As a part of this project, they (JSDF) will conduct capacity building assistance in the area of air transportation to the members of PAF (Philippine Air Force) in 2015,” according to the defense chiefs’ statement.

The PAF, on the other hand, will try to participate in future versions of “Cope North,” the multilateral combat-readiness and HADR exercise annually conducted by Japan, the U.S., Australia, and other allies off Guam.

The Philippine Navy, meanwhile, will conduct bilateral naval training with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force this year “to promote cooperation in maritime security,” according to the statement. (John Roson)

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The Philippines has observed an advancement in China’s reclamation at a territory in the disputed West Philippine (South China) Sea and is alarmed over the development, Armed Forces chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang said Wednesday.

“About 50 percent na tapos na sila, it’s alarming in the sense that it could be used for purposes other than peaceful use,” Catapang told reporters.

“Mayroong isang nire-reclaim na mahaba-haba, about 1 point something or 2 kilometers. Di pa siya developed as an airfield, pero at that span it could be,” the military chief said.

Catapang made the remarks after coming from a command conference with other ranking officers of the Armed Forces in Camp Aguinaldo.

“We continue to monitor what’s happening in the West Philippine Sea, we are appraised on the situation. We know there is still ongoing reclamation,” he said.

The military chief did not specify which territories in the disputed waters are being reclaimed.

Last September, Catapang said in a media forum that reclamations were observed in two reefs in the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group.

One of these was on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef, which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, he said.

Last May, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said reclamation was also observed on Mabini (Johnson South) Reef, where Philippine authorities believe China could be building a “base.”

Meanwhile, Catapang also revealed on Wednesday that the military continues to spot Chinese ships in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, another feature in the West Philippine Sea.

The Philippines is still waiting for the decision of the United Nations’ International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea on the case it filed against China’s claims in the disputed waters, he said. (John Roson)

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As much as 12 Chinese ships have been monitored in the West Philippine (South China) Sea as China continues to strengthen its presence in the area, military officials said Wednesday.

There have been times that 10 to 12 ships were monitored, though sometimes there are only three or four, Air Force chief Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Delgado said in a press briefing.

“The number changes from time to time, probably it depends on the level of activities that they are pursuing,” he said.

Major General Edgar Fallorina, Air Force chief of staff, said it was hard to determine how many activities the Chinese are conducting, but was clear that these have intensified.

“If they are just having their structures before, right now they are trying to improve those structures,” he said.

Last month, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said China was monitored to have been conducting reclamation activities, apparently to build a “base,” in Mabini (Johnson South) Reef.

Similar activities have also been monitored in Calderon (Cuarteron) and Gaven Reefs, according to the government.

“Right now they are doing some dredging so by that observation alone you’ll probably come up with your own conclusion what they intend to do. In short, they are trying to improve their presence,” Fallorina said.

Colonel Florante Falsis, deputy assistant chief of air staff for intelligence, said they are now monitoring other areas for Chinese construction activities.

Monitoring is now “concentrated” at Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, he said. (John Roson)

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Navy servicemen of the Philippines and Vietnam are set to hold friendly games in one of the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands of the West Philippine (South China) Sea on June 8, a military official said Wednesday.

“There will be football, volleyball, and tug-of-war,” Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Armed Forces’ Western Command, said in a mobile-phone message.

The games are scheduled to be held on Pugad Island or Southwest Cay, which was previously occupied by the Philippines and now by Vietnam, Capt. Cherryl Tindog, the command’s spokesperson, said by phone.

Navy personnel from both countries will participate in the games, which is an implementation of a previously-signed memorandum of agreement, she said.

“The games will push through. At this stage, only inclement weather can stop the event,” another military official said. (John Roson)

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The Philippines deployed three navy ships and two planes to the West Philippine Sea on Saturday to search for a Malaysia Airlines plane that was reported missing, the military said.

The Armed Forces’ Western Command (Wescom) sent the recently-acquired Hamilton-class cutter BRP Gregorio del Pilar, BRP Emilio Jacinto, BRP Apolinario Mabini, a Fokker plane, and an Islander plane to scour the sea, Wescom spokesperson Lt. Cherryl Tindog said by phone.

Military units in the disputed Kalayaan (Spratly) island group were also “alerted” to report any sighting of the missing plane, Tindog said.

The Wescom has detachments in nine islands, shoals, and a reef in the Kalayaan group.

“We have not received reports of any sighting so far,” Tindog said when contacted 1 p.m.

The search was launched after the Malaysian government informed the Philippines that a Malaysia Airlines plane went missing somewhere between the Philippines and Vietnam, she said.

The plane, a Boeing 777-200 aircraft coded as flight MH370, lost contact with the air traffic control in Kuala Lumpur 2:40 a.m., Malaysia Airlines said in a statement posted on its website.

Flight MH370 left Kuala Lumpur 12:41 a.m. for Beijing, China.

The flight, piloted by Malaysian Capt. Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was carrying 227 passengers, including two infants, and 12 crew members, Malaysia Airlines said.

The passengers are citizens from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, France, the US, New Zealand, Ukraine, Canada, Russia, Italy, Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Austria, the company said. (John Roson)

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