Philippines’ military halts visits by officials to contested territory in South China Sea

The Philippines’ has blocked a group of lawmakers and security chiefs from visiting one of nine Philippine-held features in the disputed South Sea due to safety issues, defense officials said on Friday.
But one senior Philippine general said the cancellation of this week’s trip to Thitu Island, known locally as Pagasa, had more to do with concerns over how China would react.
Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven manmade islands in the Spratlys that China is accused of having militarized with surface-to-air missiles, among other armaments.
The Philippines has squabbled with China for years over the South China Sea, but relations have improved under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who will meet Chinese Vice Prime Minister Wang Yang on Friday afternoon.
Five members of the Philippine House of Representatives were due to fly to Thitu on Thursday, while Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana and military chief General Eduardo Ano were also planning a separate visit on Friday.
The lawmakers had planned to assess upgrades and new facilities needed for the Filipino fishing community of about 100 people living on the island in the Spratly archipelago.
The military said the trip was postponed due to “safety issues.” Defense Ministry spokesman Arsenio Andolong said landing on a porous runway after heavy rains was too dangerous.

A Philippine soldier patrols a beach in Pagasa Island (Thitu Island) at the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, May 11, 2015. (Photo by AFP)

“We will need at least five days of dry weather to harden and make it safe again for landing planes,” he said. No rescheduling was made, however.
But Lieutenant-General Raul del Rosario, who heads the Philippine Western Command, said there were concerns about how China would view the trip to Thitu.
“That is contested area, that is not 100 percent ours,” he said in a Congressional hearing on Thursday. “That’s why we are concerned if you fly there. Every time an aircraft flies there, it gets a warning and, there are times, they fire flares toward the aircraft.”
The military declined to comment on Rosario’s statement.
China claims most of the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which about five trillion dollars of goods passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have claims.

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