IN what was bannered as a “historic landing,” a Philippine Navy ship, the BRP Ivatan, berthed more than a week ago for the first time at the Pagasa Island in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) within the expanse of the disputed West Philippine Sea.
For the small community of Filipinos living on the island, however, the mooring of the PN ship is just part of the “new normal” that they have been accustomed to, even before the Philippine government began to spread the meaning of the phrase to the minds of Filipinos amid the onset of a global health pandemic that, ironically, emerged for the first time in Wuhan, China.
Pagasa, the largest island in the KIG, or the Spratly Group of Islands, hosts the municipality of Kalayaan, one of the islands that is the subject of a territorial dispute between Manila and Beijing because of the latter’s aggressive and expansive claims in the South China Sea (SCS).
The new normal, as the government repeatedly says, is the way Filipinos should conduct their daily lives amid the raging novel coronavirus 2019 (Covid-19). It is how they should act, think and carry their day-to-day activities in response to the contagion.
At the same time, however, the new normal phrase carries a different meaning, perhaps owing to the fact that Pagasa Island is still free of any resident infected with Covid-19 as of this writing.
To them, new normal means having to live with the permanent presence of Chinese vessels that sail in swarms on the island’s pristine coastlines on a regular basis.
Reasserting island ownership
THE landing of the BRP Ivatan (LC298), which the Navy described as historic, has proven that the country is still in control and possession of the island, whose development is being stymied and continuously challenged by China, and, to some extent, the restraint taken by the Philippine government, which may be due to President Duterte’s pivot to Beijing.
“The Philippine Navy’s BRP Ivatan (LC298) docked at the newly constructed port at Pagasa Island, Kalayaan Island Group, West Philippine Sea (WPS) early morning of May 13, 2020, making it the first-ever PN [Philippine Navy] vessel that berthed thereat,” said the Naval Forces West (NFW) in announcing the landing.
The berthing was in connection with the military’s troop rotation and re-provisioning mission (RORE) for its different detachments in the WPS, an activity that is always challenged, both at sea and air, by the Chinese military every time it is carried out.
The presence of the Navy vessel, skippered by Cdr. Bennie B. Demetillo, in Pagasa was, however, brief.
“Said vessel already arrived at Puerto Princesa City early morning of May 17, 2020, after weeks of traversing the West Philippine Sea for troop RORE at the different KIG detachments, which also include Rizal Reef Detachment (RRD), Lawak and Patag Islands,” the NFW said.
Former Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. said the berthing of the vessel was a welcome development on the island, coming at a time when a nasty geographical message swirls on the social media saying the “Philippines is a province of China.”
But again, it was just a part of the overall new normal in Pagasa, normal in the sense that according to Bito-onon, the sight of Chinese militia vessels, accompanied and escorted by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, has become a permanent fixture on the island’s coastline.
He said the permanent presence of Chinese vessels in Pagasa is the “new normal” for the residents.
While the PN did not say in what particular port the Ivatan landed, it could have been in the small sheltered port built by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) at a cost of P450 million.
Bito-onon said the DOTr has two projects in Pagasa and these are two ports.
“One is the smaller sheltered port which is already constructed. The other one, which is bigger, is yet to be constructed,” he said.
Up to 60 vessels a day
BITO-ONON said the presence of 30 up to 60 Chinese vessels on a regular day in the waters off Pagasa is a normal sight for the residents, and, in fact, they have come to treat it as an ordinary occurrence, part of the modern-day existence of Pagasa.
“You cannot get rid of them, you cannot shoo them away. You cannot intimidate them,” he said of the vessels.
“They are blue boats, Chinese militia vessels, very big and steel-hulled. They are escorted by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, they shepherd them,” said Bito-onon, who during his mayorship had persistently urged the national government to pour in huge resources to fully develop the KIG in order to bolster the Philippines’s stamp of ownership.
‘Constant maritime militia’
In late February this year, Gregory Poling, director of the US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), said, “China has maintained a constant maritime militia and CCG [Chinese Coast Guard] deployment around Thitu Island [in Spratlys] for 424 days.”
When military reporters asked for his reaction, an apparently piqued Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana asked about Poling’s interest in the issue, adding that the presence of Chinese vessels in Pagasa was constant.
When asked about the number of ships, the defense chief answered they were counting.
Last month, Lorenzana was criticized for his apparent defense of the Chinese Navy after a Chinese warship pointed its “gun control director” (GCD) at the BRP Conrado Yap while it was on its way to Rizal Reef.
“I don’t think they have an intention of harming our men,” he said of the incident.
As the Navy had explained, the GCD can be used to designate and track targets and makes all the main guns ready to fire in under a second.
The Department of Foreign Affairs fired off a diplomatic protest to Beijing over this incident.
Bito-onon emphasized that the presence of Chinese vessels on Pagasa was not constant but permanent.
“Pagasa has an anchorage area of three up to 11 kilometers from the shoreline, they are all there, lining up the area. They are there for a variety of reasons, including R&R [rest and recreation],” he said.
“So it’s the new normal under Covid,” Bito-onon said. “New normal with their presence,” he stressed, referring to the Chinese ships and their crewmen and normal amid humanity’s existence amid the pandemic.
“We love China, as the President says,” the former mayor said in jest.
Absence of patrol
Bito-onon said the swarm of Chinese militia ships in Pagasa and in its surrounding islands may have been encouraged by the absence of regular PN patrols there, although the Navy leadership maintains it regularly prowls the area.
“There is no patrol,” the former mayor said.
More than a year ago, former Marine Captain and Magdalo Party-List Rep. Gary Alejano said that the sand bar near Pagasa, Sandy Cay, has been taken over by China in 2017, just like the Scarborough Shoal.
He claimed the dedicated presence of Chinese ships near Sandy Cay has prevented the government from exercising its “effective control” of the area.
Bito-onon said the presence of Chinese ships in Pagasa, instead of Filipino boats, prods them sometimes to entertain the issue of identity.
To be sure, presence is inevitably a signal, and, while it is impossible at the moment to stop China from continuing to assert a dubious historic claim on the area, there’s nothing to be lost from the Philippines persistently asserting its own stamp of ownership. Pagasa, after all, means “hope” in English, and as the cliché goes, “hope springs eternal.”