Tuesday, May 12, 2015

FOCUS | China 'gains territory without firing a single shot' - and the Philippines can only watch

From InterAksyon (May 13): FOCUS | China 'gains territory without firing a single shot' - and the Philippines can only watch

AFP chief Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. visits Pagasa Island. (photo by Krisken Jones, InterAksyon.com)

PAGASA ISLAND - Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr. looks worried as he surveys the rusted cranes and eroded runway on the tiny island of Pagasa (Thitu), now on the front line of a rapidly intensifying construction war in the South China Sea.

Fewer than 48 kilometers away, China’s giant construction cranes glint on the horizon, a sign of the Asian giant’s reef-building frenzy in the disputed Spratly chain that has seen new islands appear seemingly overnight.

As China and fellow rival claimant Vietnam race to pave over reefs and build structures in the strategically important sea, the Philippines stands out as a laggard.

The 356 residents of the remote Manila-held coral outcrop they will soon be forced out by China's aggressive land grab, in a conflict fought, so far, with dredgers and cement.

"Before we landed we saw the reclamation in the (nearby) Subi Reef and it's really enormous," Catapang said on a tour of the island's largely decrepit facilities. An old navy transport ship lay half-submerged in waters off the coast, with two anti-aircraft guns the only visible defenses. 

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of its Asian neighbors, and in recent years it has caused alarm with increasingly aggressive actions to assert its claims and increase its presence.

The Spratlys, an archipelago of more than a hundred islands, reefs and atolls between Vietnam and the Philippines, is one of the most hotly contested areas because of its strategic military importance.  

The United States last week sounded the alarm, accusing China of building up to 800 hectares of artificial islands in the Spratlys, and warning it could construct airfields, surveillance systems and harbors that would jeopardize regional stability.

Alarmed at the Chinese activity, other Spratlys claimants have not been idle. Vietnam is reported to be reclaiming land in two areas, while Taiwan and Malaysia have announced plans to improve their naval facilities.

The Philippines, which occupies nine islands or reefs in the chain, in contrast has done very little - partly because of funding constraints, but also because it is pinning its hopes on having the United Nations mediate the dispute.

'Without firing a shot'  

Life is usually uneventful for the inhabitants of Pagasa, the largest Philippine-occupied island which lies 433 kilometers from Palawan, and receives electricity just five hours a day.

They include soldiers, coastguard personnel and military-employed civilians, many of whom bring their wives and children with them to stave off loneliness.

But the Philippine army says that since last month Chinese vessels off the Subi reef have warned Filipino air force planes flying in and out of Pagasa to leave, saying they are violating its military airspace.

"This is bad for us who live here. We depend on the planes to deliver our food," one concerned municipal employee, 37-year-old Larry Jugo, told Agence France-Presse.

Rear Admiral Alexander Lopez, commander of the Western Command, to which forces in the South China Sea belong, said the action was effectively an enforcement of an undeclared air defense identification zone.

"They build these things, they say for legal reasons, but for military purposes as necessary. That's very alarming," he said.

Elsewhere in the Spratlys, Lopez said China has also been harassing Filipino vessels supplying marines on Second Thomas Shoal. The puny unit of nine men lives on a rusting navy ship that had been deliberately grounded on a reef.

China has also been driving away Filipino fishermen at the Scarborough Shoal, 595 kilometers to the northeast of the Spratlys and within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but which China has controlled since 2012.

Authorities and regional analysts see it as a powerful campaign aimed at making it impossible for the Philippines to hold on to its claims.

"As far as I know, there is not much that the Philippines can do," even if it wins its UN case, said Harry Sa, an American research analyst for the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"I think China is doing something smart: It is gaining territory without firing a single shot."

 'We have nowhere to run'

Outgunned by China's military might, the Philippines’ strongest card has been a suit to a United Nations tribunal, asking it to rule that China's claims are illegal.

A verdict is expected next year, but Beijing has refused to participate and would reject any finding against it.

Analysts say China is unlikely to deliberately fire at Filipino vessels, wary the Philippines could ask the United States to retaliate by invoking the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, and also reluctant to be seen as a regional aggressor.

Nonetheless, the Philippines has sought to upgrade its capabilities by acquiring two second-hand US patrol craft and ordering fighter jets from South Korea that would allow it to maneuver more swiftly over the contested waters.

But its efforts to draw in the United States, its closest ally and former colonial ruler, have stumbled, mainly because a 2014 treaty to allow American forces to use Filipino bases and build facilities is in legal limbo.

With the Philippines becoming increasingly vulnerable, Pagasa islander Jugo plans to send his wife and two children home to Palawan next year just in case trouble erupts.

"We have nowhere to run ... we will be forced to fight whatever happens," he said.


After Usman, PNP set to get JI member Amin Baco

From the Philippine News Agency 9May 12): After Usman, PNP set to get JI member Amin Baco

A New People’s Army (NPA) rebel and a member of the Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxilliary (CAA) were killed in separate incidents in Southern Luzon on Sunday, May 10, 2015.

Philippine National Police (PNP) Officer-in-Charge, Deputy Director General Leonardo Espina on Tuesday said the fight against terrorism will continue even after the death of Filipino bomb maker Basit Usman.

"[The death of Malaysian bomb makers Zulkifli bin Hir, alias Marwan, and Basit Usman] definitely led to a marking of major accomplishments in the fight versus terrorism. However, we're not going to put our guards down" Espina said in a chance interview at Camp Crame.

He said that there were many other terrorists at large, but PNP was determined "to account for all ... especially those who would create havoc".

According to Espina, PNP is set to catch Jemaah Islamiyah member, Amin Baco, next.

Amin, 31, a Malaysian terrorist and a Jemaah Islamiyah member, is believed hiding with the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, together with four other militants wanted by Malaysian police. They were reported to have fled to Mindanao following police crackdowns on militant activities in Malaysia.

"Mamasapano is just an operation to reach an objective. All objectives are very noble and for the betterment of general public. We will not stop until highly valued terrorists are all accounted for," Espina said.

Meanwhile, PNP awaits submission of more evidence needed to determine Usman's DNA.

"PNP Crime Laboratory and the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG) personnel in the field are busy collating all pieces of evidence that are relevant to the determination of the DNA" said Espina.

The PNP-OIC also said that the PNP would request proximate relatives, like parents" to cross-match with the DNA of Usman.

Usman, who was killed last May 3 in a Moro Islamic Liberation Front-controlled area.

Usman were among the targets of the bungled operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao with Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Bin Hir or “Marwan,” who was killed in the Jan. 25 mission. The police operation, however, cost the lives of 44 Special Action Force troopers, 16 Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters and three civilians.


Army scores in Quezon vs NPA, lost one CAA in CamSur

From the Philippine News Agency (May 12): Army scores in Quezon vs NPA, lost one CAA in CamSur

In Quezon, an NPA was killed after troops from the 74th Infantry Battalion clashed with 15 NPAs in San Vicente Kanluran Village of Catanauan town around 2:40 p.m Sunday while on combat operations. The encounter also yielded an M16 rifle and an improvised explosive device (IED). No soldier was hurt during the encounter.

"Additional troops and K9 tracking dogs were deployed for pursuit operations," said 201st Infantry Brigade Commander Colonel Rhoderick M. Parayno.

Earlier on Sunday in Camarines Sur, a CAA was shot to death by an unidentified gunman believed to be a member of the NPA around 7:30 a.m. in Centro Casay Village of Lupi town. The CAA member was identified as CAA Alan M Madrilejos, 39 years old, of Ragay, Camarines Sur.

CAA Madrilejos was with another CAA when the attack happened. They were out to the market to procure food provisions for their detachment. His companion was able to evade the attack and made the report to his detachment.

AFP Southern Luzon Command Chief Major General Ricardo R. Visaya extended his condolences to the family of CAA Madrilejos while he lauded the accomplishment of 201st Infantry Brigade.

"We will continue to push our focused military operations in the region based on our timelines," said Major General Visaya.

"While some soldiers and CAAs suffer the supreme sacrifice for peace, Southern Luzon is far a better and safer place now with the continuous surrenders, capture and neutralization of NPAs," he said.


Armed men held hostage 23 mining employees in Surigao del Sur

From the Philippine News Agency (May 12): Armed men held hostage 23 mining employees in Surigao del Sur

Twenty armed men held hostage 23 employees of a mining firm and kept them along with some heavy equipment of the mining firm in a southern province of the region Monday morning, police reports said.

Information released on Monday, by the police regional headquarters here prepared by PO3 Darlin C. Migullas, PIO Duty PNCO and duly noted by PSupt. Martin M. Gamba, chief information officer, mentioned that the armed men led by a certain Ruperto Ponson alias “Datu Bakentoy” occupied a portion of the Carrascal Nickel Mining Corporation mining site, specifically at Area 3, Quarry 5 located at Brgy. Babuyan, Carrascal town in Surigao del Sur at 8:15 Monday morning.

The armed group accordingly held hostage some 23 employees along with some heavy equipment of the said mining firm.

Immmediately, the Surigao del Sur police formed a Special Operations Team (SOT) composed of personnel from Surigao del Sur PPO, a platoon from Surigao del Sur Provincial Public Safety Company, a section from the 132nd Regional Public Safety Battalion and personnel from Lanuza, Carmen, Madrid and Cantilan Municipal Police Stations, and were deployed in the area to contain the incident.

The joint police team is headed by PCInsp. Edwin Noguera, the Deputy Provincial Director for operations, who established a tactical command post at Carrascal Municipal Police Station. The police had already coordinated with the local crisis management committee, according to the police report.

Around 10:00 a.m. the hostage-takers freed all 23 hostages, without ransom, but the armed men are still at the occupied portion of the mining site and are still keeping the 30 units of back hoe, dump trucks (number of units still undetermined) and 4 units of drilling machines.

The local crisis management committee (CMC) of the town presided by Carrascal Mayor Vicente T. Pimentel had already convened to assess the situation.


4 hurt in NPA attack in Camarines Sur

From the Philippine News Agency (May 12): 4 hurt in NPA attack in Camarines Sur

Four people, including a police officer and a civilian, were hurt after 15 New People's Army (NPA) rebels attacked elements of the 42nd Infantry Battalion early morning Tuesday.

The incident took place in Barangay Cawayan, Libmanan town, Camarines Sur at 5: 48 a.m., Southern Luzon Command spokesperson Major Angelo Guzman said.

He added that troopers of the 42nd Infantry Battalion along with their police counterparts were conducting routine security patrols when fired upon by the rebel force.

The encounter lasted for some 20 minutes and resulted in the wounding of two troopers, one police officer and a civilian with an undetermined number of the rebels.

Also captured were three M-16 rifles and four jungle packs with documents of high intelligence value.

Pursuit operations are still ongoing.


Trooper hurt during clash with lawless elements in Maguindanao

From the Philippine News Agency (May12): Trooper hurt during clash with lawless elements in Maguindanao

A trooper from the Western Mindanao Command was wounded during an encounter with lawless elements in Barangay Katibpuan, Talayan town, Maguindanao Monday morning.

Capt. Ben June Cerbo, Western Mindanao Command spokesperson, said that soldiers from Joint Task Force Central were conducting law enforcement operations when they encountered the bandits at 5: 37 a.m.

A short firefight ensued and led to the wounding of one trooper with an undetermined number of the lawless elements being hit in the fray.

The wounded soldier was immediately evacuated to Camp Siongco Station Hospital and later transferred to Notre Dame Hospital for medical treatment.

Clearing operations conducted by troops at around 6 a.m. in the area further resulted in the recovery of a firearm and a magazine with four live rounds of ammunition.


Civilian killed, 3 wounded in PA-NPA clash in CamSur town

From the Philippine News Agency (May 12): Civilian killed, 3 wounded in PA-NPA clash in CamSur town

A civilian was killed while three others were wounded, including a Philippine Army (PA) lieutenant, in an encounter between Army soldiers and a group of New People’s Army (NPA) rebels Tuesday morning in Barangay Udoc, a hinterland village in Libmanan, Camarines Sur, an Army officer said.

Killed was Ely Boy Aroso, a native of Barangay Udoc, who was hit in a crossfire and died instantly; while those injured were Army 1Lt. Carl Edwin Guardacasa, Corporal Joseph Pacon and Police Officer 3 Ariel Fortuna, said Captain Marjorie Panesa, 9th Infantry Division public affairs chief.

The joint team of soldiers from the Army’s 42nd IB and Philippine National Police Public Safety Company was on a security patrol operation at around 5:48 a,m, Tuesday at Sitio (sub-village) Mambinetes in Barangay Udoc when they chanced upon a 15-man NPA group.

A 15-minute firefight ensued where the three troopers from the government forces were wounded during the exchange of fire while a civilian was killed in the crossfire, Panesa said.

The NPA rebels fled when they were overpowered by the government troopers and left behind three M16 assault rifles.

Quoting a report from the team, Panes said the government troop led by Guardacasa were surprised when a civilian appeared at the encounter site and was later found dead.

Responding police scene of the crime operatives are yet to investigate whether the slain civilian was hit from a bullet fired by the NPA rebels or from the government troopers.

Meanwhile, in Lupi town, NPA rebels gunned down on Monday an active member of the Citizen Armed Forces and Geographical Unit while the victim was about to buy cigarettes in a store in Barangay Casay.


1 NPA, 1 Cafgu killed in Quezon, Camarines Sur

From the Philippine Daily Inquierer (May 11): 1 NPA, 1 Cafgu killed in Quezon, Camarines Sur
A suspected New People’s Army guerrilla and a member of the Citizens’ Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary (CAFGU) were killed in an encounter in Quezon and in an ambush in Camarines Sur on Sunday, a regional military spokesman said Monday.

Major Angelo Guzman, spokesperson of the Southern Luzon Command (Solcom), said the still unidentified rebel was killed in an encounter with soldiers from the Army’s 74th Infantry Battalion in Barangay (the village of) San Vicente Kanluran in Catanauan, Quezon.

Citing a field report, he said the clash between government troopers and an estimated 15 rebels happened on Sunday afternoon. The rebels left behind an M16 rifle and an improvised explosive device. No soldier was hurt during the encounter.

Earlier on Sunday in Camarines Sur, Cafgu member Alan Madrilejos, 39, was shot to death by an unidentified gunman believed to be an NPA hitman in the village of Centro Casay of Lupi town. The victim was with another Cafgu member when the attack happened. But the other paramilitary man was able to evade the attack.

Guzman said the two paramilitary men were on their way to the market to buy food provisions for their detachment.


AFP hunts ISIS-linked terrorists

From the Manila Times )May 10): AFP hunts ISIS-linked terrorists

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are now hunting down suspected Malaysian terrorists who were behind in seizing a police station in restive province of Basilan in the Muslim autonomous region in Southern Philippines that triggered a clash killing two members of local bandits Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), authorities said.

Quoting from reports, Capt. Roy Vincent Trinidad, chief of staff of Naval Forces Western Mindanao (NFWM) and Joint Task Force Zambasulta, identified the foreign terrorists as Mohammad Najib, Muhammad Joraime and Mahmud bin Alih alias Handzalah Doc.

The three terrorists were the companions of Mohamad Amin Baco and Jeknal Adil, who were reportedly being hunted down by Malaysian government since July last year for alleged recruiting militants and sending them abroad to fight alongside the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to Singapore’s Today newspaper.

The five were believed to be members of the Darul Islam Sabah in Malaysia.

The report, however, identified Mahmud as Dr. Mahmud Ahmad, a lecturer at Universiti Malaya’s (UM) Islamic Studies faculty, who went missing and believed to be hiding in the Southern Philippines along with four others under auspices of the ASG.

On Friday, Marine Capt. Ben June Cerbo said a clash erupted in the town of Hadji Mohammad Ajul, Basilan where troops had been pursuing the ASG and the Malaysian terrorists.

One of the slain radicals has been identified as Hakim Entong.

Soldiers also recovered improvised explosive devices and two black flags similar to that of being used by ISIS and al-Qaeda international terror groups.

Other details in the clash were withheld by the military, but sources from the police said the fighting erupted when local policemen left their station in Tuburan proper of Hadji Mohammad Ajul Municipality, where around 50 “ISIS” combatants seized and rose the black flags near it.

Besides the named foreign terrorists, the sources also identified Filipino sub-leaders as Abdilla Alam, Mannan Alam, Abbas Alam, Uztadz Arabi Mandio, Zaid Utu Mandio who are along with two unidentified women acting as liaison involved in the attack.

“The situation in the area cannot control anymore by the local police [that inclined them to] abandon their sub-police station due to the presence of (the) ISIS,” the source said.

“The police provincial office [also] send additional [police forces] to augment the local municipal police [and] maintain the peace and order in the municipality,” the source said in a text messages.

No one was reported hurt in the attack.

The seized police station was later regained by security forces with help from civilian volunteers.

The ASG also known as Harakatul Islamiyah led by Isnilon Hapilon had previously pledged allegiance to the ISIS’ caliph self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Presence of radicals
The presence of the radicals are also feared in other parts of Mindanao.

Former provincial police director Senior Supt. Nickson Muksan, now chief of Maguindanao provincial police, earlier told The Manila Times the group behind the killing of police and army personnel in the province were “ISIS fighters” but refused to give further details.

The military in a “chance encounter” had killed four ISIS-inspired bombers in Madalum on September 2013 belonging to Khilafah Islamiyah Movement (KIM) locally known as Ghuraba.

The Ghuraba on October last year have declared that an Islamic caliphate or Khilafah Islamiyah has been established in the country and has started fulfilling its mission of propagating its doctrines and beliefs.

These were belied by security officials and local leaders as mere propaganda of the radicals.

Meanwhile, the Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) in the Philippines, an al-Qaedah affiliate, recently released a new video titled message to Obama and the Philippines president, claiming that they, alongside with the Ansarul Khilafah [supporters of the caliphate], have now thousands of Mujahideen ready to fight against the government and “taghut [infidels].”

The JI’s public video was produced in bi-language with Arabic script translation and logo of Al-Wafa network. The video started with an introductory part of published news about “Philippines offers help in the United States war against ISIS.”

The video shows masked men holding the ISIS’s flag and rallying their support to the jihadist group, saying there are no leaders in the world other than al-Baghdadi. They even threatening to rise the “black flag” in MalacaƱang and the White House in the United States.

It also shows their training in combats including sniping, while discouraging other Muslims in the Philippines from not fighting for jihad. Young children were also seen in the video.

Ansarul Khilafah, which was formed by JI member Abdul Basit Usman, is operating in both Maguindanao and South Mindanao including General Santos City and Saranggani province, according to the intelligence community.

Authorities believe the death of notorious bomber Usman and international terrorists Zulkifli Bin Hir alias Marwan, who had ties with “black flag” extremist movements in the country and the JI, had weaken the radicals.


Military retirees win over P17.89B in money claim

From Rappler (May 10): Military retirees win over P17.89B in money claim

The government owes the military pensioners P14.207 billion from 2000 to 2008 and P3.684 billion accumulated from 2009 to 2012

Over P17.89 billion ($400 million) in unpaid benefits and pension differentials were ordered paid to retired military officers who are members of the Conference-Assembly for Unity and Solidarity of Association of Armed Forces of the Philippines Retirees and Pensioners – National Coordinating Council (CAUSA-AFPRP-NCC).

In a Commission on Audit (COA) decision released on Friday, May 8, the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were ordered to make an alpha list of the military pensioners supposed to receive their benefits as early as 15 years ago.

The government owed the pensioners P14.207 billion ($320 million) from 2000 to 2008 and P3.684 billion ($80 million) accumulated from 2009 to 2012.

COA cited a collective failure on the part of the legislative and executive branches of government for the unpaid differentials starting 2000 to 2012 to AFP retirees.

"The responsibility to ensure that they receive whatever is due them does not lie upon the DND and AFP alone, but also that of the Office of the President, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Congress," read the COA decision.

In their defense, the DND and AFP argued before COA that it was Congress' lack of appropriation for the retirees that caused the delay in the payment of benefits for the military pensioners.

The COA said the military's budget proposal for each fiscal year should then reflect such pensioners' benefits.

The COA said "AFP retirees, pensioners and beneficiaries were left to linger inasmuch as their requests for payment of arrearages went unheeded and the same remained unpaid."

Following the decision, the DND and the AFP would have to identify and list all retirees due the pension differentials and submit it to the DBM and the AFP auditor.

While the money claim by the military retirees was granted by COA, it decided against granting their request for payment of their attorneys' fees totalling around P4.47 billion ($100 million) incurred during the claim.

COA said the "petitioner's prayer for the award of expenses and attorney’s fees cannot be sustained considering that it is beyond this Commission’s mandate, not being a regular court of justice, to grant the same."


Parents claim bodies of NPA rebels killed in Bukidnon

From the Philippine News Agency (May 12): Parents claim bodies of NPA rebels killed in Bukidnon

The bodies of two unidentified New People’s Army (NPA) rebels who were killed in a firefight in Bukidnon were claimed Monday by their parents, the military said Tuesday.

Police investigators identified the slain communist NPA rebels as Jubane Saguinlao a.k.a. “Karel” and “Jinggoy” Colao, all of Balingasag, Misamis Oriental.

The mother claimed the body of Saguinlao while the father took the body of Colao, after presenting papers, in the municipal town hall of Libona, Bukidnon, Monday, the police said.

The military brought the bodies of the unidentified rebels to the municipal town of Libona in Bukidnon last Sunday for proper identification by relatives or friends, the police said.

The parents went to Libona after the police reported about the unidentified bodies of the NPA rebels at the municipal town hall.

Col. Jessie Alvarez, commanding officer of the Malaybalay based 403rd army brigade, said that the government troopers killed the rebels in a firefight in the mountains of Kitanglad in Bukidnon last Friday morning.

Alvarez said that the government troopers overran the rebel camp in Kitanglad during a surprise raid after residents in the farming village of Sil-ipon reported the presence of an armed group in the area.

He said that aside from recovering the bodies of the two rebels in the camp site, the government troopers also recovered several loaded magazines of assault rifles, hundreds of bullets, personal belongings and subversive documents of high intelligence value.


From rundown outpost, PHL watches China island take shape in disputed sea

From GMA News (May 12): From rundown outpost, PHL watches China island take shape in disputed sea

Residents and soldiers conduct a flag raising ceremony during the visit by Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang to Pag-asa Island, west of Palawan on May 11, 2015. REUTERS/Ritchie A. Tongo/Pool

THITU ISLAND/PAG-ASA ISLAND, South China Sea - As the Philippine military C-130 transport plane made its approach to the country's most precious outpost in the disputed South China Sea on Monday, it flew past a reef which China is quickly turning into an island.
At least two cranes and two dredgers were visible on Subi Reef from the plane taking local and foreign reporters on a rare trip to Thitu island.
China's reclamation around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago of the South China Sea is making Philippine islands such as this, known internationally as Thitu but called Pag-asa in the Philippines, vulnerable, said Philippine military officials and security experts.
"In the last two years we have seen rapid development. They are getting closer to us. It's a threat," Major Ferdinand Atos, the highest-ranking soldier on Thitu, told reporters after the plane made a bumpy landing on the island's makeshift runway.
Subi Reef lies a mere 14 nautical miles from Thitu, its lights visible at night, Philippine officials said.
Atos said Chinese patrol ships had not tried to come close to Thitu, which is surrounded by shallow water.
But Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies, said the Philippines might struggle to sustain its holdings on Thitu and elsewhere in the Spratlys.
"Once (China) has all its facilities up and running, it will put the Philippines in a much more difficult position," Storey said. "The Chinese will be able to harass Philippine Coast Guard and naval vessels on a more regular basis ... they could try to impose blockades on other Philippine-occupied atolls, including Pag-asa."
China recently warned Philippine air force and navy planes at least six times to leave areas around the Spratlys, the Philippine commander responsible for the region said last week.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
Last month, China offered a detailed defense of its reclamation work, saying the new islands would provide civilian services such as weather forecasting and search and rescue facilities that would benefit other countries.
It has also accused other claimants, including the Philippines, of undertaking major reclamation work.
China's Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the trip by reporters to Thitu, which was organized by the Philippine military.
A Philippine Marine patrols a beach in Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) at the Spratly group of islands west of Palawan in the West Philippine Sea on Monday, May 11. The Spratlys are considered a potential Asian flashpoint, and claimant nations have expressed alarm as China has embarked on massive reclamation activity in the territory. The Philippines has already filed a case against China in an international tribunal regarding the dispute on West Philippine Sea. AFP/Ritchie Tongo/Pool
The coral-fringed Thitu, some 280 nautical miles from the Philippines, is the biggest island occupied by Manila in the contested region.
The 37-hectare (91-acre) island boasts fresh water, a small number of Philippine troops and a civilian population of about 100 people who take advantage of government subsidies to live here.
There is little sign of any upgrading.
The runway is no more than an unpaved track dotted with tufts of grass. Blue ocean water washes over one end while erosion is eating away at other sections.
The only sign that the island hosts a military base are two 40 mm anti-aircraft guns on opposite sides of the runway.
Thitu needs a proper wharf to spur tourism and fisheries, said Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan, a municipality in the island province of Palawan that administers the island.
The military had developed a plan to upgrade the nine islands and reefs it holds in the Spratlys.
But those plans were put on ice after the Philippines filed a case with a UN tribunal in The Hague in 2013, challenging China's claims in the South China Sea. China has refused to take part in the arbitration case, which has yet to be heard.

Chinese airstrip nearby?
China's creation of artificial islands is happening so fast that Beijing will be able to extend the range of its navy, air force and coast guard before long, experts say.
Dredging at Subi Reef showed a series of landmasses being created that, if joined together, would provide enough land for a 3,000-meter (3,281-yard) airstrip, IHS Janes Defence Weekly said last month.
China was building choke points in the Spratlys, Armed Forces of the Philippine chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr. said last month, referring to reclamation that would narrow the room for Philippine vessels to move at sea.
"It will be a challenge for us to bring supplies and rotate our troops in the disputed area," he told reporters at the time.
On Monday while on Thitu, Catapang was more guarded when asked about the presence of Chinese vessels in the Spratlys.
"We don't see them as a threat, we should demilitarize this area," he said.
Joely Mendoza, 44, a mother of nine, said she had lived on Thitu for the past year. She was not afraid of the Chinese navy because its boats did not approach the island, she said.
"If the Chinese invade us here then we will just leave," Mendoza added.

Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters

From GMA News (May 12): PHL, Japan hold historic naval drills in flashpoint waters

Two Japanese destroyers and one of the Philippines' newest warships began historic naval exercises in the flashpoint South China Sea on Tuesday, showcasing a deepening alliance aimed at countering a rising China.
The day-long war games, the first bilateral naval exercises between the former World War II enemies, took place less than 300 kilometers (186 miles) from a Philippine-claimed shoal now under Chinese control.
Philippine authorities insisted the exercises were merely focused on building military capabilities, but security analysts said they were clearly a signal to China over bitter maritime territorial disputes.
"First they demonstrate that China's Pacific neighbors are beginning to balance against China," professor Michael Tkacik, a foreign policy expert at the Texas-based Stephen F. Austin State University, told AFP.
"Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and assorted other states are threatened by China's behaviour, even as far away as India. Thus, the Philippines and Japan are jointly making an important statement about how seriously they view China's actions."
China has caused deep concern regionally in recent years as it has become more aggressive in staking its claims to the South China Sea and Japanese-claimed islands in the East China Sea.
China insists it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the South China Sea.
However the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims to parts of the sea, which is vital to the global shipping industry and is believed to contain huge deposits of fossil fuels.
Rising confrontation 
In 2012, China took control of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a rich fishing ground within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone and more than 650 kilometers from the nearest major Chinese landmass.
Chinese coastguard vessels have since guarded the shoal and denied Filipino fishermen access, triggering a series of protests from the Philippines that have been brushed aside in Beijing.
Although the Philippine Navy declined to say exactly where Tuesday's exercises would take place, it said the vessels would sail into the South China Sea from the former US Subic Bay naval base.
That base is about 270 kilometers southeast of Panatag Shoal.
A Philippine Navy spokesman said the exercises were the first bilateral war games between the two nations. 
He said one of the main drills would see an AW 109 helicopter from the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, a frigate acquired from the United States in 2012, flying to one of the Japanese destroyers when the three vessels meet at sea.
"It would be naive for anyone to think this is just an ordinary joint exercise in the light of some assertive actions by China in the South China Sea," Wilfrido Villacorta, an international relations lecturer at the Manila-based De La Salle University, told AFP.
He described this as a "natural reaction" by the Philippines after recent "provocations."
Villacorta cited in particular China's recent flurry of reclamation activities on reefs in the Philippine-claimed Spratlys archipelago, turning them into islands capable of hosting significant military outposts.
The Spratly islands are about 800 kilometres from Subic Bay.
Tkacik said Japan's naval presence in the South China Sea in support of the Philippines would likely anger China.
"We can fully expect loud protests from China about Japan aggravating the situation," he added.
"But in fact it is China that is ignoring international law and its actions are instigating this balancing behaviour between the Philippines and Japan."
China has repeatedly rejected allegations it is breaking international law in the South China Sea, insisting it has sovereign rights to the waters.
China and Japan are separately engaged in a bitter and longstanding row over ownership of a Japanese-controlled island chain in the East China Sea. They are known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan. 

PAF Fokker collapses on Legazpi Airport

From the Philippine News Agency (May 11): PAF Fokker collapses on Legazpi Airport

An Fokker F-27 "Friendship" VIP transport aircraft, on a routine training mission, collapsed at the Legazpi Airport in Albay after damaging its nose gear while landing Monday morning.

The incident took place at 10 a.m., Philippine Air Force spokesperson Lt. Col. Enrico Canaya said in a message to the PNA.

He added that the plane was carrying six crewmen, including its pilot.

This prevented normal flight operations from being carried out in the said airfield.

Canaya said that the crippled F-27 was towed clear at 3 p.m., resuming flight operations.

An investigation is now being conducted to determine the exact cause of the mishap.