By Francis Wakefield
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana Thursday clarified a report made by Washington think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) that the Philippines is not just building a beaching ramp in Pagasa Island, Palawan but also into land reclamation covering eight acres or 32,000 square meters.
In an interview, Lorenzana said contrary to the report, only the beaching ramp is being undertaken.
“Next is the concreting of the runway. The third phase is the lengthening of the runway which will entail the reclamation of about 300 meters,” Lorenzana said.
“Reclamation means there is land before and you are reclaiming the land back. Since there is no land but the water we call it filling up the space with stones, gravel, and soil,” he added.
In a report which can be read via https://amti.csis.org/under-pressure-philippine-construction-paramilitary-response/, the AMTI said satellite imagery from December 13 and 14, 2018 show a barge anchored off the west coast of the island with excavators and a bulldozer in the process of depositing and grading sand to extend the small existing causeway to the edge of the reef—presumably creating the beaching ramp referred to by Secretary Lorenzana.
This would allow ships with deeper drafts to deliver supplies directly onto the island, rather than the current process of offloading onto smaller boats in order to ferry supplies over the reef. The new construction started sometime in early to mid-December, as no apparent work is visible in imagery dated December 3.
However, more recent imagery from January 11 and 26, 2019 show that the reclamation works is more ambitious than a simple beaching ramp. Both images are partially obscured by clouds, but they reveal excavators depositing sand over an area of approximately 8 acres, or more than 32,000 square meters, to the north of the existing causeway.
“It seems unlikely that this area of new landfill, the equivalent of about three city blocks, is meant only as a staging area for materials and equipment brought in to repair the runway,” the AMTI said.
The AMTI, in the same report, said China has responded to this new construction by deploying a large fleet of ships from Subi Reef, just over 12 nautical miles southwest of Thitu. These include several People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) and China Coast Guard (CCG) ships, along with dozens of fishing vessels ranging in size from 30 to 70 meters.
A handful of Chinese vessels have operated in the area between Subi and Thitu since at least July 2018, likely in response to the initial Philippine effort to start runway repairs last May. But their numbers increased to at least 24 on December 3, just before the current construction operations began. In five subsequent satellite images captured from mid-December to late January, their numbers fluctuate, reaching a high of 95 on December 20 before dropping to 42 by January 26, 2019.
Lorenzana earlier said they expect the construction of the beaching ramp in Pagasa Island, Palawan to be completed in the first quarter of this year.