Updated Feb 14, 2019, 1:55:51 PM
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 8) — The country's Defense chief on Friday stood by government efforts to improve facilities on Pag-asa Island in light of China's alleged force deployment in the disputed area.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines did not violate international law with its construction and repair works on Pag-asa, one of the biggest islands in the contested Spratlys in the South China Sea, and seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.
"Having undergone careful planning and consideration, with full respect to international law and rules-based order governing civilized states, implementing these improvements is a legitimate undertaking, and well within our rights as a sovereign nation," Lorenzana said.
He said among the facilities being built or upgraded include the beaching ramp that would enable authorities to bring in construction equipment, air strip, better barracks for soldiers, desalination facilities, sewage disposal system, conventional and renewable power generators, lighthouses, shelters, and storage facilities for fishermen.
Lorenzana stressed the government "has always been open and transparent in conveying and fulfilling the government's desire to improve the living conditions of both the civilian and military citizens" there.
His statement comes after U.S.-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reported that the Philippines' "reclamation work is more ambitious than a simple beaching ramp," and that China has responded by sending up to 95 ships, including militia, near Pag-asa.
Lorenzana said, "The presence of militia on the Chinese man-made structures is no surprise to us as they have been there since 2012." The AMTI, however, showed photos of a maritime fleet's transit from Beijing-occupied Subi Reef to Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, internationally known as Thitu, on December 20.
"We expect other countries to respect Philippine sovereignty, and to conduct themselves in a civilized manner befitting members of the global community," Lorenzana added.
Lorenzana earlier revealed that China tried to stop the government from repairing structures on Pag-asa, citing his meetings with Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. He said he responded by saying "it's just proper for us to improve the runway and every facility in the Pag-asa because they have already developed Subi Reef."
Philippine troops and a community of fishermen live on Pag-asa Island. Meanwhile, China has installed missile systems and other equipment on Subi Reef, one of the artificial islands it has occupied in the Spratlys.