The military yesterday started its rotation of Air Force and naval contingents for deployments in Pag-Asa Island in the Spratlys.
Originally scheduled before Christmas, the airmen were not immediately relieved by their counterparts at Armed Forces of the Philippines-Western Command (AFP-Wescom) headquarters in Palawan due to the prevailing weather system hovering over the region for the entire month of December.
Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. confirmed the deployment of fresh troops in the island municipality.
Since the sea around the island is very rough, Wescom has started shuttling new Air Force troops to the island town using a Navy plane, giving the islanders a chance to visit Palawan aboard the returning Navy aircraft.
Pag-Asa Island is located within the hotly contested Spratlys archipelago area but is closer by several miles to mainland Palawan than from the coastline of Vietnam, which is laying maritime claim over the region along with China, Brunei and Taiwan.
All claimant countries except Brunei have troops deployed in the region, with China becoming more aggressive in pressing its maritime claim to almost 80 percent of the entire South China Sea by deploying its warships and surveillance vessels to conduct regular maritime patrol over the area.
The other day, Beijing announced the completion of the training exercises of its aircraft carrier Liaoning in the region.
The training exercises almost resulted in a naval confrontation between a Chinese frigate and the US warship USS Cowpens in December.
Aside from the airmen who are deployed on rotation basis in Pag-Asa Island, the seat of Kalayaan Island town with a current population of almost 200 civilian inhabitants including children, contingents from the Philippine Navy are also stationed in the area to bolster the country’s territorial hold over the seven islets and two shoals in the region.
“We don’t monitor any naval activities of China out there because of the prevailing weather. The sea is very rough and it is very dangerous for any ship to venture out in the open sea for now,” Bito-onon said.
He added that he has yet to receive reports from local fishermen if the two Chinese maritime vessels have returned to Ayungin Shoal. The vessels left the area last month after taking up position near the shoal for several months.
Ayungin Shoal is located between Pag-Asa Island and mainland Palawan.
China, insisting that the shoal is an integral part of its maritime domain, has tried to dislodge a contingent of Marine troops stationed in the shoal aboard the grounded Navy logistic ship BRP Sierra Madre.