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Philippine MPs visit Spratlys despite China warning
by Staff Writers
Thitu Island, South China Sea (AFP) July 20, 2011

Defiant Philippine lawmakers flew to an island in the disputed Spratly chain Wednesday, ignoring warnings from China that the trip would destabilise the region and damage ties.

Five members of parliament, joined by a small party of soldiers, local officials and journalists, arrived on Thitu island aboard two private planes and raised two Philippine flags above a government building.

Legislator Walden Bello said the delegation came to promote a peaceful solution to the territorial dispute, but stressed that Filipinos, who know the island as "Pag-asa", are ready to defend "Philippine" territory.

"We come in peace, we support a diplomatic solution. But let there be no doubt in anybody's mind, in any foreign powers' mind, that if they dare to eject us from Pag-asa... Filipinos will not take that sitting down," he said.

"Filipinos are born to resist aggression. Filipinos are willing to die for their soil."

Bello also said their plane flew over other islands in the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines, but discreetly kept its distance.

The visit to the flat, wind-swept island comes as tensions rise over the Spratlys chain which is wholly or partially claimed by China and the Philippines as well as Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Thitu is the largest of the Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys, an archipelago believed to sit on vast natural resources and which also straddles shipping lanes vital to world trade.

About 60 Filipinos live on Thitu, which is just 37 hectares (91 acres) in size and lies about 450 kilometres (280 miles) northwest of Palawan island, the nearest major Philippine landmass.

China's closest big landmass is Hainan island, more than 900 kilometres away.

Southeast Asian governments voiced "serious concern" over the territorial dispute at regional security talks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali this week.

They announced that they had agreed with China a set of guidelines for cooperation in the area, but diplomats conceded the deal was watered down in the quest for a compromise.

Several incidents between claimants have raised the political temperature recently.

Chinese forces have allegedly opened fire on Filipino fishermen, shadowed an oil exploration vessel employed by a Philippine firm and put up structures in areas claimed by the Philippines.

China later Wednesday expressed "strong protest" over the lawmakers' visit, the state Xinhua news agency said, referring to the island as Zhongye Dao.

The Chinese embassy in Manila said in a statement Tuesday that the trip "serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage the China-Philippines relationship".

Bello brushed aside the criticism.

"Maybe they are not used to democratic processes," he told around 80 people gathered for the flag-raising ceremony on the island, including soldiers, police, coast guard personnel, and government employees.

Later, after returning to Palawan, Bello said that China's reaction was "terribly discourteous."

He told AFP by telephone that the legislators would work to improve transport and communications to the Spratlys.

Journalists on the trip reported seeing anti-aircraft artillery rusting under the baking sun, as well as several fishing boats in surrounding waters which one of the legislators said were Chinese.

Obnor Lenasic, a 43-year-old municipal employee who has lived on Thitu for six years, said that with the patchy telephone and satellite TV signals, news of the Spratlys dispute seemed very remote to the residents.

The Chinese, Filipinos and Vietnamese keep to their own islands in the region, although the Chinese and Vietnamese would at times fire warning shots if approached, he said.

"But if we see each other out at sea while fishing, we wave at each other. Sometimes we do barter. We give them coconuts and they give us Chinese cigarettes," Lenasic said.

"I like the peace and quiet here."


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