By Martin Sadongdong
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana rejected on Tuesday the observations of a United States-based think tank that said the presence of Chinese boats allegedly disguised as militias was among the factors why development works on Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea face continuous delay.
Lorenzana maintained that the natural features of the island and the bad weather made it hard for the contractor to finish the development of a beaching ramp and runway on the island.
“There was a big problem at the initial stage of the Pag-asa rehabilitation project,” Lorenzana told reporters.
He explained that the seabed — the ocean floor or the ground under the sea — where the beaching ramp was to be built was found to be “so hard” that the contractors had to bring in appropriate drilling equipment.
“When work finally started, it was slow because of this problem,” Lorenzana said.
The defense chief added that the seas in the Spratly Islands (Kalayaan Island Group) “are usually rough” that the contractor’s barges can only transport materials within a small window of time from January to April or May.
Pag-asa is the biggest island occupied by Filipino soldiers and a small fishing community in the Spratly archipelago. China has successfully militarized seven reefs being claimed by the Philippines in the Spratly Islands in a bid to assert its dominance over the entire South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
“After that, it depends on the weather,” Lorenzana said.
Last week, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS-AMTI) based in Washington reported that from December 2018 to March 2020, Chinese boats have continuously swarmed Pag-asa Island, according to satellite imagery it has collected and analyzed.
It said that Chinese boats harass and intimidate Filipinos ships in Pag-asa, contributing to the delay of the development on the island.
“I do not know where AMTI’s allegation came from. It’s totally false,” Lorenzana said, reacting to the U.S. think tank’s report.
He noted that although there are “always” Chinese ships in the vicinity of Pag-asa Island, “they have never in any way interfered with the rehabilitation of the island.”
Nonetheless, Lorenzana said the development works on Pagasa Island are still ongoing.
He first announced the development of the island in 2017 and projected that it would be finished by the end of 2018. However, the development works faced numerous delays and the deadline was moved to end of 2019, which again was not met.
Now, Lorenzana has not released a new target date for the completion of the rehabilitation of the island.
He did say it is important to finish the beaching ramp before the runway as it will be used to bring in the heavy equipment, cement, steel bars, sand, and gravel.
As of July 2019, the construction of the beaching ramp had been 60 percent complete.
“Without it, no rehab of the island could proceed,” Lorenzana said.