Pag-asa Island carries on, but China's presence looms large

June 16 ------ Night is falling on Pag-asa Island, a slow, drawn out march to darkness unlike any other place in this country. I can still make out the Chinese fishing boats, hovering about the sandbars of Sandy Cay. They sit on the water, unmoving, no sign of life onboard save for the flickering of the odd utility light or an occasional rubber boat moving between them.

The sea and sky soon succumb to the inevitable dark, banishing the horizon into the stygian night. Yet everybody on Pag-asa Island knows where the Chinese will be in the darkened sea. Powerful lights from the man-made island of Subi Reef blink to life and bathe the clouds in shades of yellow. More lights at the far end of the island fortress glow a shade of blue, illuminating the sky. At the center of these incandescent pockets of light, the silhouettes of huge cranes and buildings can be seen. There is a span of emptiness between the lights, fallow ground in between the concentrations of industry and function. Yet a few days later that emptiness would be filled with two lines stretching for several kilometers—runway lights to welcome the Chinese planes or drones whose lights can be seen lingering over Pag-asa at night. Every few seconds the giant eye of a lighthouse on the Chinese island completes a turn, a spark in the dark, warning of the perils of shallow water and the danger of coming too near the heavily guarded facility.

When the sun rises, the lights fade and the emerald sea around Pag-asa fills the horizon. The Chinese boats with blue hulls and white pilothouses remain painted in their places. The fishermen and the soldiers stationed on the island tell us these boats are part of the Chinese fishing militia; military-controlled vessels masquerading as fishing boats scattered all across the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

These boats have never left the area between Subi Reef and Pag-asa since they first appeared in 2017. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana would confirm the presence of the militia around Pag-asa Island when he flew in last week to inaugurate a concrete beaching ramp, one of the many government infrastructure projects being undertaken on Pag-asa. As the secretary spoke to journalists after the ceremonies, the very same military-controlled fishing boats floated on the sea behind him. “Ang cover nila ay fishermen, but we know they are militias. I think they are there. Basta huwag lang nila molestyahin ang ating mga fishermen,” Lorenzana said.

On the day of his visit, the navy counted no fewer than 16 fishing boats and one Chinese Coast Guard ship in the area. Despite the permanent presence of the Chinese over Sandy Cay, local fishermen tell us that things have become better with the Chinese in recent months. Gone are the days when Chinese boats would surround Pag-asa and impede the passage of fishermen. Despite this development, the Chinese seem to have drawn new borders around the island.

When we went to a nearby sandbar forming part of Sandy Cay, a Chinese Coast Guard ship went near to investigate. The hulking white ship came near enough for us to see see the markings on its side and its empty decks. Oddly enough it just floated near the sandbar, silent, its bow pointing at us for over ten minutes. Other journalists who have come this close to similar ships elsewhere in the West Philippine Sea have been approached and warned off by Chinese Coast Guard personnel in rubber boats.

The merciless sun eventually forced us to leave the sandbar and with it the Chinese ship that stood guard over it. The locals tell us that the features of Sandy Cay used to be camping grounds for fishermen and their children, who would swim in the morning and feast on fresh fish caught just a few meters from shore. But now this seems no longer possible. Later that day fishermen would tell us they were warned by the military to not go to the sandbar anymore.

“Masakit sa loob na mapagsabihang huwag na tayo doon, pero at least alam na natin ngayon na bawal na,” one of the fishermen tells me, his voice choked with emotion. Another resident only had bitter words for the government: “Dapat sila nga ang matapang na magtatanggol sa amin diyan!” Lorenzana had earlier acknowledged the perils the fishermen faced in the Chinese occupied areas saying fishermen should fish elsewhere around the island lest their actions be misinterpreted by the Chinese.

“Hindi naman tayo pwede sumali diyan; baka akala nila nakiki-agaw tayo ng isda. Anyway napakalaki naman nitong Spratly Islands, and it is teeming with fish. Our fishermen can go to another sector also,” Lorenzana said. Commodore Allan Corpuz, the Philippine Coast Guard's Palawan District Commander, says the PCG has been conducting regular patrols throughout the KIG using the Japanese-built Parola class patrol boats. He says the PCG's relationship with both Vietnamese and Chinese Coast Guards in the KIG has been nothing but positive.

Corpuz says he is aware of the situation facing the fishermen in Pag-asa, but calls for calm and understanding in the face of the complex nature of the territorial dispute with both the Vietnamese and the Chinese. “Minsan 'yung mga fishermen natin nakapasok na doon sa 12-nautical mile limit ng occupied feature, kaya sinusugod sila. Huwag na lang tayo magsawa sa kakapaalala sa mga kababayan natin tungkol diyan at galangin mga limits."

During the Independence Day celebration on the island, Kalayaan Mayor Roberto De Mundo would thank the national government for the improvements on Pag-asa. Besides the newly built beaching ramp and a sheltered port for fishermen, the construction of additional electric generators are currently underway. The Department of Transportation also plans to put up a fish freezing facility on the island, while the Defense Department has funds to cement and repair the runway. Yet in the same speech, the mayor would also voice his frustration over government’s seeming inaction over the challenges to his constituents' right to the rich fishing grounds around Pag-asa Island. “Napakalungkot po kasi nasa tabi natin 'yung gumawa ng napakagandang isla, 'yung Subi Reef ng mga Chinese, kaya wala tayong magawa. Diplomasya lang—ang ating presidente ayaw ng giyera makipag-usap na lang tayo; magkasundo na lang tayo na walang giyera,” he said.

The days seem to last forever on Pag-asa, daylight resisting the inevitable coming of night. It is already past seven in the evening yet the sun lingers just above the sea. There is still enough light to see the unpaved runway and the crumbling concrete communication tower beside it. At the far end of the island the beaching ramp shines white in the light of the docked military transport ship and the fisheries research vessel. And in the distance the Chinese lighthouse blinks to life and the Chinese militia ships turn on their lights for the night.