Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana has announced that the construction of a new beaching ramp on Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-administered islands in the Spratlys, will be completed “in early 2019,” according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) project. 

The ramp will help in the delivery of construction equipment and other supplies to Thitu for further planned upgrades, especially to the island’s crumbling runway. Thitu has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970 and is home to about 100 civilians and a small military garrison – and it appears that more installations may be added to the island’s new ramp.

CSIS refers to satellite imagery from January 11 and 26 showing substantial reclamation work on the island and comments that “it seems unlikely that this area of new landfill, the equivalent of about three city blocks, is meant only as a staging area for materials and equipment brought in to repair the runway.”

Lorenzana had previously said his government plans to construct a fishing port, a desalination plant, solar power, improved housing and marine research facilities on Thitu.

China, which also claims the island, appears to be aware of these plans and has responded by deploying a large fleet so ships just over 12 nautical miles southwest of Thitu.

It is the second time in recent years that China has increased its presence around Thitu. In August 2017, a contingent of Chinese naval vessels was deployed near the island when fishermen from the Philippines attempted to erect shelters on a nearby sandbar.

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