Chinese militia not behind delay in Pag-Asa Island rehab: defense chief

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Construction on Pag-Asa island (Thitu) in this satellite imagery taken on Feb. 13, 2020. Image by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar, 2020

MANILA – The presence of Chinese militia boats has not delayed construction and repairs in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative earlier said the Philippine military monitored 136 unique Chinese vessels near Pag-Asa in the first 2 months of 2020. AMTI said the same image also showed 4 stationary vessels, with 3 leashed together at the western edge of the lagoon.

"The Philippines has slowly made progress on its upgrade work at Thitu after repeated delays. Officials in Manila have consistently blamed the delays on bad weather, but it seems likely that the constant Chinese militia presence has played a role," AMTI said. 

The Philippines' defense secretary, however, rejected the AMTI report. 

"I do not know where AMTI's allegation came from. It's totally false," Lorenzana said in a text message. 

He added: "Although there are always Chinese ships in the vicinity of Pag-Asa (remember Subi Reef is within seeing distance away by the naked eye), they have never in any way interfered with the rehab of the island."

The defense secretary said special drilling equipment had to be shipped from Puerto Princesa to Pag-Asa Island to be used on the seabed where the beaching ramp was to be built. 

No repairs could be made in the Pag-asa runway until the beaching ramp is built as it will be used to bring in heavy equipment, cement, steel bars, sand and gravel, he added. 

"The seas in the Spratleys are usually rough that the contractor's barges can only transport materials within a small window of time, from January) to April/May. After that, it depends on the weather," Lorenzana said. 

The AMTI report earlier said satellite imagery from PlanetLabs revealed an average of 18 Chinese ships around the island each day between Dec. 2, 2018 and March 2, 2020.

Vessels at Thitu Island, December 18, 2019. Image by CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/Maxar, 2020

"These counts indicate the minimum number of Chinese ships present on a given day. Many vessels likely went uncounted because they were under cloud cover or outside the frame of the images," it explained.

It cited another higher-resolution imagery collected by Maxar on Dec. 18, 2019 which revealed 88 Chinese vessels near the island. Most of these vessels were trawlers and have shown no proof that lights were used for night fishing.

"All of this is consistent with the behavior of the fleet since December 2018—the 'fishing' ships around Thitu are engaged in surveillance and harassment, not fishing," AMTI said.

When their number spikes, AMTI said these boats were accompanied by government vessel Shuwu-class China Coast Guard 5103, the same ship then known as China Marine Surveillance 84 that participated in the 2012 standoff with Philippine vessels at Scarborough Shoal. 

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