By Jojo Riñoza and Jeoffrey Maitem
The Philippine Coast Guard said Wednesday that it planned to upgrade its station on Pag-asa (Thitu), an island in the South China Sea, to improve monitoring in contested waters where Manila has complained about incursions by hundreds of Chinese ships.
Adm. George Ursabia Jr., the head of the coast guard (PCG), visited Pag-asa on Tuesday as part of a move by Manila to assert sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea, a section of the South China Sea that falls within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“There’s a plan to further improve the PCG station in Pag-asa for monitoring purposes, especially for maritime safety and search and rescue,” Commodore Armando Balilo told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s also for our fishermen.”
In addition, officials are discussing potentially using El Nido, a popular tourist site in the western Philippines’ Palawan Islands, which face the South China Sea, as a hub for operations to monitor activities in the maritime region, said Balilo, a PCG spokesman.
The coast guard’s announcement came after Gen. Cirilito Sobejana, the Philippine military chief, said earlier this month that the armed forces planned to transform Pag-asa, which is located in the Spratly chain, into a logistics hub and that he would ask President Rodrigo Duterte for funds for it. The facility would be equipped with high-resolution and night-capable cameras to monitor activities in those waters, Bloomberg news agency quoted Sobejana as saying.
In April, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs began filing daily protests against Chinese incursions into its territories within the West Philippine Sea after more than 200 ships had been spotted. The government also accused China of “swarming” ships near Pag-asa, which is known internationally as Thitu Island.
In a report issued on Monday, U.S.-based Simularity noted that about 120 Chinese ships were spotted in the Philippine EEZ as of May 18.
“They are primarily located on the Philippine side of Tizard Bank,” Simularity said in the posting on its website. Tizard Bank is in the northwestern region of the Spratly Islands.
Simularity said its software “automatically analyzes geospatial imagery and data to automatically find and classify unusual changes.”
Beijing has allowed its fishermen, backed by militias, to fish in areas considered to be in the EEZs of other claimants. Earlier this month, Philippine officials rejected an annual fishing ban imposed by China, and which runs through Aug. 16.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea region as its own while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have their own territorial claims. Indonesia does not regard itself as party to maritime disputes in the sea, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway that overlap Indonesia’s EEZ.
During his Tuesday visit, Ursabia distributed school supplies to children at a school built in 2012, according to the coast guard.
Balilo said the trip was meant to ensure that coast-guard personnel assigned to the country’s remote areas were in “high spirits” and to echo President Duterte’s policy of protecting “the safety and well-being of our fishermen and coastal communities in all parts of the country, including the WPS [West Philippine Sea].”
Last week, Duterte vowed that contested waters would be patrolled.
“Our vessels will continue to patrol relevant areas to firmly assert what is ours,” Duterte said in a statement at the time. “The Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will be where they need to be.”
Since taking office in July 2016, Duterte has issued conflicting statements on the South China Sea while his critics have called him too soft on China. Lately, he has thanked Beijing for its help in sending COVID-19 vaccines to Manila amid a supply crunch.