THITU ISLAND, PHILIPPINES —
The Philippines will build a new seaport in the South China Sea next year in a bid to push its claim over part of the waters, Philippine officials said, a move that analysts say is likely to provoke reactions from other claimant-countries, particularly China.
But Eugenio Bito-onon, the former mayor of Kalayaan, the Philippines’ smallest municipality in the Spratly Islands, said the port is designed to make Thitu Island more accessible for about 200 residents, mostly fishermen, and about 50 rotating soldiers who live on the island.
“We are looking at a harbor with moorings designed to shelter fishing boats, patrol boats and even yachts,” he said.
Plans go back to 2012
Bito-onon first broached the idea of building a port in 2012, but the arbitration case that Manila filed against Beijing got in the way. All Philippines construction and repair plans were halted.
“The national government said at the time that the project is not feasible and costly,” he said, recalling how he battled with bureaucracy. "Maybe the government approved the project now after they’ve realized that it can be done. After all, China was able to transform their occupied submerged reefs into man-made islands.”
China started its land filling activities in 2013, dumping sand on dredged up reefs to transform the rocks into fortified military outposts in the middle of the disputed sea. “The reefs are now islands with airstrips equipped with modern military facilities,” Bito-onon said.
A military outpost on the island. (D. Agnote for VOA)
Goals of the project
Philippine officials say the new seaport would vastly improve access not only to the remote island but also to the eight other Philippine-claimed military islets, reefs and sand bars in the Spratlys.
Philippine lawmaker Johnny Pimentel said that Manila has earmarked 450 million pesos (roughly $9 million) for the work.
The port "will surely help encourage human settlement in the remote Philippine island,” said Pimentel.
Kalayaan consists of about 95 islands, cays, shoals and reefs in the middle of the South China Sea, all claimed by the Philippines.
Located 518 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan Province, Thitu island is the most habitable and the biggest occupied by the Philippines in the disputed Spratlys. It is the second largest island in the entire Spratly chain.
A low-lying landmass, Thitu has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970.
The government has been planting civilians there since 2001 in a bid to populate the 37-hectare island. But only a few stayed due to the islands’s lack of accessibility and inadequate facilities.
From Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, the island can only be reached through a World War ll-era surplus military ship that makes a routine trip to the area every three to four months, depending on the weather.
Even though it has an airstrip, only small military planes make an occasional trip to the island.
With the construction of a seaport, Bito-onon hopes more Filipinos or even foreign tourists would be encouraged to visit the island.
Lawmaker Pimentel has urged the government to put up a research station on the island, and to find ways to provide the 37.2-hectare island a renewable and stable source of electricity. At present, he said, a generator supplies some of the island’s electricity needs.
The island's beaches: turquoise waters and powdery white sand. (D. Agnote for VOA)
Resumption of oil and gas exploration is urged
Pimentel also urged the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte to restart the oil and gas exploration in the disputed South China Sea that were temporarily suspended while an international tribunal heard the Philippines maritime case against China.
"It is in the national interest that we renew forthwith the quest for new deep-water natural gas deposits [in that region], while the government pursues strong and effective diplomacy with China." he said.
The Department of Energy put on hold three offshore oil and gas hunts in the South China Sea last year out of respect for the ongoing court case.
“It’s high time to allow the resumption of the stalled projects, considering the arbitral tribunal’s verdict that the areas involved are well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as defined by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Pimentel said.
Seaport might change Philippines-China relations
Edmund Tayao, a political science professor at the University of Santo Tomas, said the seaport would reinforce the Philippines’ presence in the area. “It is incumbent on the part of the government to provide the necessary facilities there."
Relations between Manila and Beijing soured in 2012 when China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, north of the Spratlys.
Manila is now “moving fast” to rekindle its ties with Beijing, according to incoming Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, who added the Philippines "has shifted to seeking better political and economic ties with China, but not seeking a military alliance.”
“At best, it would be an alliance of trade and commerce,” he said.
The group of islets shoals, reefs and cays known together as the Spratly Islands are claimed in whole or part by the Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.