The Philippines is set to build a port and a runway on disputed islands and shoals in the South China Sea. The move is likely to be seen as Manila's latest attempt to bolster its military facilities in the face of China's extensive military aggressiveness to claim and control territories in the international waterway.

Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana on Friday (17 March) announced that Manila is planning to build a new port and pave an existing rough runway.

He disclosed the development plans after visiting a military base near Spratly Islands. "We will build a runway and a port, a pier, for our ships" on Thitu," Lorenzana said. "We are a bit blind in that area."

Thitu is the second largest of the naturally occurring Spratly archipelago and the largest of the Philippine-administered Spratlys. It is close to Subi Reef, which is one of the seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. About 110 fishing community are thought to be living on Thitu, where China has placed its troops but not civilians.

China has built military-grade runways there that have the capability to deploy surface-to-air missiles. Besides, it has built civilian facilities like a lighthouse, which China said has played a positive role in guaranteeing navigation safety and is used in humanitarian rescue efforts.

Lorenzana added that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had approved the upgradation of facilities not only on Thitu Island but also on the eight other features in disputer waterway, which the Philippines occupies.

The defence chief was scheduled to inspect an outpost on Thitu but his trip reportedly got cancelled due to safety issues, Reuters reported. According to defence ministry spokesman Arsenio Andolong the runway would have been dangerous after rains hence Lorenzana's trip got cancelled.

However, Lieutenant-General Raul del Rosario said that the military would have blocked the trip over fear of irking China. A planned trip to Thitu by a group of lawmakers on 15 March was also apparently called off, Reuters noted.

"That is a contested area, that is not 100 percent ours," Rosario said. "That's why we are concerned if you fly there. Every time an aircraft flies there, it gets a warning and there are times they fire flares towards the aircraft."

South China Sea
Construction is seen on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly islands in the disputed South China Sea in this 3 June 2016 satellite image CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo