Philippines may boost sovereignty claim by promoting tourism
The Philippines may bolster its sovereignty claim over a strategic outpost in the South China Sea by inviting tourists to book hotels there.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in July 2019 that the government is rebuilding a dilapidated runway on Thitu Island, also called Pag-asa Island.
“Plus, in the future we’ll be building structures for our troops there and maybe some hotels for Filipinos who would like to go there as tourists,” he said, according to The Philippine Star newspaper.
Part of the Spratly archipelago, Thitu is about 519 kilometers west of the Philippine coast. It is only 26 kilometers away from Subi Reef, which the People’s Republic of China (PRC) occupies and has engineered into a fortress with 400 buildings, radar, runways, aircraft hangars and surface-to-air missiles, according to Reuters. (Pictured: Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures as he inspects runway work on Thitu Island.)
Only about 100 people live on Thitu, so allowing tourists to stay there would strengthen the Philippines’ sovereignty claims under international law, experts contend.
“Tourism, as I understand it, is a form of virtual occupation and a statement of sovereignty because tourism means that there is legitimization of civilian activity in these so-called contested territories,” said Alan Chong, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, according to a Voice of America report. “It’s a way of ensuring that these islands will be perpetually occupied.”
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, the PRC, Taiwan and Vietnam dispute sovereignty over all or parts of the South China Sea. The International Court of Justice considers a continual display of authority over a land feature a critical element of sovereignty, Fabrizio Bozzato, a fellow at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association, told Voice of America.
“The Philippines will demonstrate what in international law doctrine is called actual control and use of that particular island, so that will corroborate the Philippine claim not only on Thitu but also the nine islands that Manila controls.”
The PRC’s maritime militia monitored Manila’s construction on the island and targeted it with menacing behavior. About 200 Chinese boats, which Philippine authorities said were part of the PRC’s maritime militia, surrounded the island in April 2019 before heading back out to sea.
Philippine military officials said the crews weren’t behaving like fishermen. “These are suspected maritime militia,” said Capt. Jason Ramon, a spokesman for the Philippine military’s Western Command, according to The Straits Times newspaper. “There are times when they are just there and not fishing.”
The incident prompted the Philippines to lodge a diplomatic protest with Beijing, and the conflict seemed to strengthen the country’s resolve to assert its sovereignty.
In addition to repairing the runway, the government is building a beaching ramp to move construction materials and heavy equipment to the island, Reuters reported. Plans also call for a sheltered port for bigger fishing vessels, Coast Guard boats and Navy ships, said Hermongenes Esperon, national security advisor.
“We have not abandoned any island,” Esperon said, according to Reuters. “No island was taken from us since 2016, and we are strengthening our positions and possession.”