The military hopes to organize cruises to disputed isles in the West Philippine Sea in response to similar efforts by other claimant countries, the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines said Thursday.
“Hopefully, we will be able to put up a cruise ship going around six islands,” said AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang. These would include Patag, Lawak and Pagasa Islands and Ayungin Shoal, all part of the Spratly Islands.
The tours might be a public-private partnership project, “if we are able to develop the area,” he said.
“We’ll be able to hopefully have a cruise because that is also being done by other countries. They have a tourism effort to go around the islands that they possess,” Catapang added.
Catapang said that the Chinese might also turn the islands they are currently occupying into tourist destinations. “This is a win-win situation if that will happen,” he added.
The AFP chief said he was briefed on Wednesday by the AFP Western Command (WesCom), which oversees military operations in the disputed region.
“I challenged them to make Palawan the next most prosperous province, to showcase it,” he said. “Palawan has a lot of potential, especially if we can develop the island that we now possess as a tourism destination.”
Catapang, who assumed the top military post on July 18, on Wednesday installed Rear Adm. Alexander Lopez as new WesCom commander. Lopez replaced Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, who will retire on Sunday.
5-6 Chinese ships in area
Catapang also said that five to six Chinese ships are regularly seen in the disputed areas, particularly at Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef), Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), and Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal).
“That’s the usual.They are there in Ayungin Shoal, they are also here in Scarborough…And then they’re also at Mischief Reef because that became their forward operating base,” he said.
Mischief Reef and Panatag Shoal are controlled by China, with the Chinese building structures on the former. The Philippines has a presence on Ayungin Shoal.
The AFP has also submitted a report to the Department of Foreign Affairs about possible reclamation activities by the Chinese on some of the disputed islands.
“These are not that definite because these are just photo shots,” Catapang said.
Catapang did not identify the islands on which the suspected activities are occurring, but recent news reports point to possible activity on five reefs, including Cuarteron Reef (Calderon Reef), Gaven Reef (Burgos Reef), and Johnson South Reef (Mabini Reef).
May visit Ayungin Shoal
Catapang also said he hopes to visit the troops on Ayungin Shoal.
“I want to, but it might become a sensitive issue. I don’t want to unnecessarily make a visit that may not turn out well,” he said.
Earlier this year, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest against China for blocking Philippine vessels carrying supplies and personnel from going to the shoal. — BM, GMA News