The Philippines has started deploying troops and equipment to a South China Sea island whose sovereignty is disputed by Beijing.
Philippine troops and initial supplies arrived last week at Pag-asa Island, which is also claimed by regional power China, according to the head of the Philippine Military’s Western Command General Raul del Rosario.
The general explained on Thursday that construction work planned on the island, which will cost about $32 million, includes reinforcing and lengthening an airstrip, work on building a dock, a fish port, solar power infrastructure, a water desalination plant, the refurbishment of housing for soldiers, and facilities for marine research and tourists.
Pag-asa, known internationally as Thitu, is the second-largest island in the Spratly archipelago. The island, which is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam, has been home to Filipino soldiers and fishermen for decades.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the reinforcements and construction work in the disputed territory last month but sought to reassure Beijing by saying that he was not “militarizing” the region.
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, including waters and rocks close to the shores of neighbors, and has been building artificial islands and installing military equipment on them, including on some reefs in the Spratly chain, which are also claimed by Manila.
China protested a visit to the island by the Philippines’ defense and military chiefs last month. It also warned Manila earlier this month that any construction on the island would be illegal.
“We view the occupation by the Philippine side of those islands as illegal. And so the building on it are also illegal,” said Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua.
In reaction to the warning, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that the island and the Kalayaan Island Group are “a municipality of Palawan,” a province of the Philippines.
The South China Sea, through which more than five trillion dollars in global trade passes every year, has been a source of tensions between China and some other regional countries, including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam as well as the Philippines. The US has often interfered in the regional dispute as well, taking the side of China’s rival claimants.