Philippine defence chief Delfin Lorenzana visits disputed Spratly island of Thitu

Delfin Lorenzana’s trip to Thitu comes amid reports of China Coast Guard attack on Filipino fishermen in Spratlys

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 4:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 April, 2017, 11:42pm

The Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to a disputed South China Sea island on Friday, brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting Manila’s territorial claim to the region.

“This is just a normal visit within our territory, which we believe and we know is [our] territory,” the minister told reporters who accompanied him on the brief trip.

As Lorenzana flew to the disputed waters, the Philippine Coast Guard said that a group of Filipino fishermen had accused the China Coast Guard of firing at their vessel in a section of the Spratlys.

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Philippine officials said they were investigating the reported attack on the Princess Johann trawler, which the crew said occurred near the Chinese side of the Union Banks atoll on March 27.

“[Princess Johann] was reportedly fired upon seven times by a Chinese speedboat with seven Chinese crew on board,” a Philippine Coast Guard statement said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Beijing had “no information” on the matter.

If confirmed, the incident would be the first hostile episode in nearly a year involving the two countries, which have seen warming relations since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power.

There were no casualties during the incident, Philippine authorities said, adding that the Philippine Coast Guard and military were investigating the incident.

China claims most of the South China Sea, including Thitu Island which Lorenzana visited and the Philippines calls Pag-asa Island.

In recent years Beijing has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands, including on Subi Reef, about 26km from Thitu, which can house military facilities.

Lorenzana said construction would start “within the next few weeks” for a quay on Thitu where construction materials will be landed for repairs on an existing airstrip on the largest of nine

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Philippine-garrisoned outcrops in the Spratly archipelago. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim the Spratlys, either wholly or in part.

As the military transport plane bearing Lorenzana and local officials of Palawan island, the largest land mass close to the Spratlys, prepared to land, the minister said the pilots received a warning from Chinese forces on Subi.

He said the pilots were warned that the aircraft was illegally entering Chinese territory, a routine for all Philippine aircraft landing on the Thitu airstrip since China reclaimed Subi. He said his pilots disregarded the warning.

“That’s their protocol. That’s procedural. We also reply that we are flying over Philippine territory,” he said.

Lorenzana visited Thitu more than a week after Duterte pulled back from an announcement to visit the island on June 12 and raise the Philippine flag there. Duterte said later he had called off the trip “because we value our friendship” with Beijing.

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Reversing the course set by predecessor Benigno Aquino, Duterte has sought to improve his nation’s relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters believed to sit atop huge oil and gas reserves.

Lorenzana, however, said Duterte was not backing down from his orders for the military to reinforce its installations in the Spratlys, and had alloted 1.6 billion pesos (HK$250 million) for these.