MANILA, MARCH 8, 2011 (STAR) By Christina Mendez - Amid the diplomatic protest initiated by the government against China for harassing a research vessel conducting gas exploration in the disputed Spratly Islands, top military officials have recommended that two of the islands there be developed for tourism to boost the country’s territorial claim.

This developed as the football and basketball games of Philippine troops with their Vietnamese counterparts, scheduled to be held in the Spratlys, were postponed to accommodate military teams from other claimant countries.

Lawak and Patag islands are closest to the Palawan shoreline and lie contiguous to vast oil and natural gas deposits found in Reed Bank, Western Command (Wescom) officials said in a security briefing for Senate President Pro-Tempore Jinggoy Estrada, who visited the camp last Friday.

Wescom commander Gen. Juancho Sabban noted that Malaysia had developed Swallow Reef into a dive resort where it also maintains a naval base.

“The dive resort in Swallow Reef or Layang-Layang Island Resort is part of the tourism attraction of the Malaysian government, which operates between March to August every year,” Sabban said.

The military officials said that developing Lawak and Patag islands would mean increased economic activity in the islands.

They noted that from one islet in 1984, Malaysia now has occupied five islets and reefs. The Spratly Islands is claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and China.

Officials said the development of Lawak and Patag islands into tourist areas will further boost interest among investors. They also want the development of search and rescue facilities to support tourist and business ventures.

Lawak island has a total area of 7.93 hectares and is located at 98 miles east of Pag-Asa and is considered as the bird sanctuary of Kalayaan Islands.

A check at Wikipedia, on the other hand, revealed that Patag island, also known as Flat Island, is located about six miles southwest of Lawak island and has a surface area of 5,740 square meters, which is described as an example of a cay that changes shape seasonally. This reportedly serves as a military observation post in Kalayaan.

Postponed square off

Meantime, diplomatic intervention has effectively put on hold the much awaited major square off between Philippine government forces and their Vietnamese counterparts in the Spratly Islands.

The friendly dual meet – a football and basketball showdown between the two countries – has been postponed to give military forces of other Spratly-claimant countries, like China, Malaysia and Taiwan, a fair chance to participate in the sporting event.

“It was scheduled in April but the dual sporting event was initially put on hold due to the intervention of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) because it might be misinterpreted by other claimant countries, including China,” Sabban said.

Sabban, who initiated the friendly match in order to ease tension that has long been prevailing in the South China Sea among military forces of claimant countries, said he invited Vietnamese troops to a dual meet because they are the ones nearest the Filipino troops.

Sabban added that he is hoping the showdown will eventually push through, and that they have invited the other claimant countries to take part in the football and basketball games, scheduled to be held for three days in Pag-Asa island, the biggest island occupied by Filipino troops, and three days in Pugad, an island occupied by Vietnamese troops.

Military’s role

The Wescom officials also advocated the need to “civilianize” the Lawak and Patag islands during the security briefing with Estrada, saying it would be part of asserting the country’s claims to the disputed islands.

Estrada, for his part, said “there is a need to improve the AFP’s capability and increase their budget for modernization.”

Based on the security briefing, the AFP’s strength is nothing compared to the military assets set up by other claimants China, Vietnam, and Malaysia which have built new buildings and set up facilities in the respective islands that they have “occupied.”

China continuously fortifies its position in the Panganiban Reef or Mischief Reef, Wescom officials said.

The Wescom also called on Defense and Energy officials to implement a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) aimed at supporting the procurement of needed assets of the Philippine Air Force and the Philippine Navy and the Joint Task Force Malampaya. - With Jaime Laude

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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