Construction on Philippine Rise, Pag-asa Island will push through – Lorenzana

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 15) — There is no stopping the government from enforcing its presence on the Philippine Rise and Pag-asa Island, the country's defense chief said.

The government eyes to start construction on the Philippine Rise, formerly named Benham Rise, in two years, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said during a press briefing in Malacañang on Friday.

"If we have the funds and we get the correct technology, maybe in two years' time we may be able to start. And maybe another one year to establish it there," Lorenzana said.

He said there are no funds yet, but plans are underway for the construction of a helipad and beaching ramp on the Philippine Rise, a 13-million hectare undersea plateau that lies 216 kilometers (135 miles) east of the coast of Aurora province.

Related: Things to know about Benham Rise

He said the goal is to "establish naval presence" in the Philippine territory, where the country's flag was planted last June 12, Independence Day.

Also read: The day the national flag flew over Philippine Rise

"We'll have three jump-off points for our patrols in Benham Rise," Lorenzana said. These are in Casiguran town in Aurora, Polillo Island in Quezon province, and in Cagayan province, in the eastern part of the country.

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the conduct of patrols in the area in March, after Chinese naval ships were spotted in the area.

Duterte in a speech last April said he wanted to "officially claim [Benham Rise] as ours" by renaming it. He signed Executive Order No. 25 on May 16, formalizing the change of name.

The United Nations has declared the area as part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf where the country has the sole right to its resources.

China has admitted its ship was in an area east of the country but only on innocent passage, saying it recognizes the Philippines' sovereign rights there.

But the Philippine Rise also needs to be protected from exploitative activities of foreign fishermen, Lorenzana said.

"The problem there is the fishermen of other countries have been poaching there for a long time. Coming from Taiwan, South Korea, China, even Japan comes to Benham Rise and we would like to protect what belongs to us," he said.

Repairing Pag-asa

Even if China protests, Lorenzana said the government will push through with the planned repair of structures on Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands in the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea.

Pag-asa Island is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, and is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.

"They will protest. I was told by the ambassador that anything we do there they are going to protest. It's okay, anyway anything they do there we also protest," Lorenzana said.

Read: Carpio to gov't: Protest 'Chinese presence,' guard sand bar near Pag-asa Island

The planned repair, however, is suffering a delay.

Lorezana said it should have started already since the contracts were finalized two months ago, and a P1.6-billion budget has been allocated.

He said they are looking at an 18-month timeline. The first stage would be building a ramp that will allow construction materials to be brought in. After which, construction may begin.

A cemented, all-weather runway will be among the first projects, Lorenzana said, extending it by 500 meters to suit bigger aircraft.

CNN Philippines' Ina Andolong contributed to this report.