Philippine officials visit disputed South China Sea island

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines’ defence minister and military officials have made a trip to a disputed South China Sea island just a few miles from a base built by China, a visit that could draw criticism from Beijing.

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Delfin Lorenzana was on Thitu island on Tuesday to launch a beaching ramp for construction of much-needed infrastructure on the Philippines’ most strategically important South China Sea island.

The ramp will allow movement of construction materials and heavy equipment to the 37-hectare (91-acre) island, home to a handful of soldiers and a small civilian population that helps to prop up the Philippines' claim to sovereignty.

Lorenzana said the $26 million of planned upgrades include improvements to Thitu’s landing strip but stressed the island would not become a military installation.

“The purpose of this is to develop this area into a viable community,” said Lorenzana, adding that he was confident that Beijing would not view Tuesday’s visit as a provocation.

“We will not militarize this. I call it militarization if we bring in other weapons that are heavy, like canons or missiles, everything. We will not do that here.”

China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Thitu, known as Pagasa in the Philippines and located 451 km (280 miles) from the mainland, is the biggest of the eight reefs, shoals and islands it occupies in the Spratly archipelago.

The Philippines is playing catch-up with China and Vietnam, which have been busy developing islands they occupy or have built from scratch on submerged reefs.

China has six artificial islands, some equipped with radar, runways and surface-to-air missiles. Those include Subi Reef just 24 km (15 miles) away and visible from Thitu.

During Lorenzana’s last visit in 2017, Chinese authorities warned his plane to leave, but on Tuesday he said there was “no word from them anymore”, adding that China knew Manila’s intentions were peaceful.

Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Clarence Fernandez