Navy spokesperson Capt. Jonathan Zata told defense reporters in a phone patch interview that decision makers should take note that these locations were important to “our strategic maritime security.”
Zata issued the statement a day after the Inquirer reported that Chinese investors were targeting the islands for transformation into economic and tourism sites.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo declined to comment on the report.
He said Malacañang would wait for the assessment of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana of concerns that China might use the islands to support its geopolitical agenda in the Pacific.
“I have not heard anything from the national security adviser nor the national defense secretary,” Panelo said.
The development of Fuga, Grande and Chiquita islands is part of 19 business deals worth $12.16 billion signed on the sidelines of President Duterte’s visit to Beijing in April for the Belt and Road Initiative forum.
Fong Zhi Enterprise Corp. plans to develop Fuga Island into a $2-billion “Smart City,” an agriculture breeding center and a high-tech industrial park.
GFTG Property Holdings and Sanya CEDF Sino-Philippine Investment Corp. forged a $298-million deal to develop Grande and Chiquita islands in Zambales province.
Lorenzana earlier said he was not consulted by the business sector on the security implications of the Chinese investments, and that he would have the intelligence officers make an assessment.
“Then we will wait for his advice,” Panelo said in reply when told of Lorenzana’s remarks.
Zata pointed out that Fuga Island in Aparri, Cagayan province, and the Babuyan Island Group were the location of the country’s physical connection to the outside world “because beneath these islands are our telecommunications cable.”
“If this (cable system) could not be properly secured this might impact on our capability to get in touch with the rest of the world,” Zata said.
He added that Fuga Island was made a jump-off point for American forces in World War II to get to Luzon, underscoring the importance of the area to the country’s security.
Zata said Grande and Chiquita islands were made part of the defense perimeter of the Americans because of their location at the mouth of Subic Bay, where they put up a naval base.
He pointed out that the Navy’s concern on the takeover of the three islands was raised “just a couple of months ago when we determined that there are talks of converting these important locations into economic hubs.”
The concern was relayed up the chain of command, from the Navy flag officer in command to the Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff to the defense secretary.
“What we raised is there should be a balance between the requirement to have economic activity and viability [on these islands] and the need to secure [them as] important locations,” Zata said.
He said the Navy was not opposed to plans to develop the three islands “as long as the studies made by the appropriate agency are balanced that it’s not just about economic gains but more importantly maritime security implications of having those islands taken over by foreign entities.”
Zata said the Air Force, Army and Navy should have access to these locations “when the need arises.”
If the islands were converted into tourist hubs and configured in such a way that there was no space for airports and seaports or military forward staging points, “our security forces would be disabled,” Zata said.
Panelo dismissed the concern of security analyst Jay Batongbacal that the government only focused on bringing money in, and not the wider and long-term effects of such investments.
“And the problem with him is that he doesn’t see anything good that this government does relative to the issue on China,” Panelo said.