MANILA – Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana made a one-day trip to the disputed Spratly Islands on Friday, amid the presence of rival militaries in the disputed South China Sea.
Lorenzana traveled to the island Filipinos call Pag-asa, part of the Spratly Islands, emphasizing the country’s military commitment over the contested waters.
Armed Forces spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told EFE that the visit was to “to conduct a routine inspection and support the approximately two hundred Filipino civilians living on the island.”
Chinese authorities, who stake a claim to the entire Spratly chain, issued several radio alerts to the C-130, warning it was “flying over their supposed air control area,” Padilla said.
“We did not answer because we were flying over our own territory,” he remarked, referring to the nine islands currently controlled by Manila.
The trip was aimed at strengthening the Philippines’ claim to Pag-asa, as Padilla mentioned the possibility of developing and extending the concrete airstrip on the islet, an epa journalist reported.
The Spratly archipelago, believed to be rich in oil and gas, sparked controversy during the term of former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2008 when the government was under fire for allegedly selling Philippine territory through oil exploration deals made with China and Vietnam.
Friday’s trip was made following President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to deploy the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy all islands of the Philippines in the South China Sea to bolster the country’s claims early this month, a turnabout from his earlier stance on the Chinese military presence in the South China Sea.
On April 6, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had vowed he would personally travel to the Spratly and raise the Philippine flag there, less than a week later he retracted his statement in the name of preserving friendship with China.
The latest visit by Philippine senior officials to the area is expected to further strain Manila-Beijing relations.
Other countries, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim total or partial sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.