The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest with China over the reported presence of so many Chinese vessels near Pag-asa island, about 300 kilometers west of southern Palawan. Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua has immediately assured China’s cooperation to verify the reports and handle the issue through friendly and diplomatic channels, allaying fears of an outbreak of conflict over the issue.
At the center of the issue is the island of Pag-asa, also known as Thitu. On the island is the small town of Kalayaan, a 5th class municipality of Palawan province. As early as 1946, President Elpidio Quirino had declared Pag-asa and eight smaller islands nearby, which he called Southern Islands, as part of the Philippines. President Ferdinand Marcos signed into law in 1978 Presidential Decree 1596 creating the municipality of Kalayaan. In 2009, Congress enacted RA 9522 defining the archipelagic baselines of the Philippines, claiming sovereignty over the Kalayaan islands.
The first recorded election in Kalayaan was on January 20, 1980, which elected Aloner M. Heraldo. After a series of appointed mayors, elections were held on May 11, 1992, and Gil D. Policarpio was elected. The current mayor is Roberto M. del Mundo who won on May 9, 2016.
Kalayaan has an old airstrip dating back to the time when it was a military installation, a five-bed lying-in clinic, and a small elementary school. The Philippine government decided to do repair work on the old runway on the island in May, 2018. To facilitate the delivery of construction equipment and materials, a “beaching ramp” was built. Satellite images showed excavators depositing sand over an area of about 32,000 square meters, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Shortly thereafter, AMTI said, Chinese vessels were seen operating in increasing numbers in the area – “likely in response to the initial Philippine effort to start runway repairs.” China claims most of the South China Sea, as delineated by a nine-dash line as its sovereign territory.
The Washington think tank noted a decrease in government vessels in January, suggesting, it said, that the Chinese forces have settled into a pattern of monitoring “after their initial large deployment failed to convince Manila to stop construction.”
The projected investigation after the filing of the diplomatic protest should be able to verify this and other details of the events around Pag-asa island. We are confident that the issue will be settled amicably, as have all other issues among the various nations with conflicting interests and claims in the South China Sea.