Our country’s interest to build a naval base in Fuga Island is not to deter China.
Rather, that decision is to keep the area open to international navigation, while converting the Cagayan Export Processing Zone (CEZA) to a shoppers’ paradise and tourist destination.
Fuga Island is one of several islets intersecting the Bashi Strait, an international waterway for ships traversing the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is the waterway that divides the Philippines and Taiwan. Specifically, Fuga Island is located north of the Balintang Channel.
The strait’s boundary was signed in the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898 between Spain and the US, encompassing all the territories of the Republic of the Philippines.
On the other hand, the area off the coast east of Cagayan is a shallow body of water. It is part of the country’s continental shelf, being contiguous to the Philippine archipelago.
This large body of water stretching off the coast of Cagayan south to the boundary of Quezon and Bicol provinces are mostly within the 200-mile limit demarcated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and partly within our territorial sea demarcated in the Treaty of Paris.
This area, east of the Philippine archipelago, is a continental shelf known as Philippine (Benham) Rise. The area is partly within the 200-kilometer coastline of the archipelago. A great portion of the Philippines Rise, and overlapping the boundary to the coastline is demarcated in the Treaty of Paris, and is recognized by international law as part of our territorial sea.
The area within the 200-mile limit is our exclusive economic zone defined by UNCLOS and ratified by the Philippines in 1978. Although there could be no effective legal acquisition of the area as part of our territory, it being a submerged body of water, the Philippines nonetheless considers that area within its EEZ.
For this reason, countries have been racing to conduct underwater exploration for mineral resources. Initial findings indicated that the area contains polymetallic sulfides and three or more metals of commercial quantities. Among such metals are gold, silver, copper, iron, zinc, and lead. As falling within our EEZ, no county can intrude and occupy to exploit the mineral resources in the area.
The Philippines has already made strong declaration that Philippines Rise is partly within its territorial waters, and is considered off limits to any exploration for oil and natural gas.
On the other hand, Fuga Island is part of the Babuyan chain of islands. Despite its proximity to the province of Batanes, it is attached to the province of Cagayan. Fuga Island has an area of 70 square kilometres and a population of 2,015 inhabitants.
The principal settlement is Naguilian village on the southern coast; has an elevation of 191 meters, and a maximum length of 35.4 km. The neighboring islets are Barit and Mabag. Being a part of the Philippine archipelago, the country has sovereign right over them.
Because of its strategic location, the US has been eyeing the island for future military use to serve as sentry base for ships traversing in and out of the South China Sea.
The decision of President Duterte to convert a portion of the island to a naval base is to pre-empt the US from coveting the area, in light of the deteriorating relations between the US and China.
The strategic value of Fuga Island is to choke Chinese warships and submarines moving out to the Pacific Ocean to possibly “attack” US bases in Australia, Guam and Hawaii in the event of war. Bashi Strait or alternately Balintang channel will serve to compress ships while navigating through the Strait.
The US can also use the Fuga Island to harass China’s extension of its maritime Silk Road to the South Pacific countries such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Marianas and onward to South America. The US could use Fuga Island to block ships coming from China and exiting to the Pacific Ocean.
From a military standpoint, no country except the US needs Fuga Island as base.
Fuga Island is sufficient to convert a portion of it to an airfield and has a deep shoreline to accommodate naval ships. The sounding of US interest for Fuga Island is meant to pre-empt the “creeping invasion” by China much that it could see the inflow of Chinese investments which it could not otherwise compete.
This prompted President Duterte to order the establishment of a naval base as it appears it is the US that is coveting the area for its own use, especially after State Department secretary Mike Pompeo announced his determination to wage a Cold War with China.
Some US naval experts believe that for the US navy to pour in its entire fleet into the South China Sea is a very dangerous proposition. It is like being trapped in a lion’s den. Its warships could be hit with least time for them to intercept because of the development of hypersonic missiles.
The economic potential of Fuga Island is enormous.
Fuga Island could become a trading and tourism hub. This explains why the idea of converting Fuga Island as potential US military base is more of a likely possibility.
The implementation of the Maritime Silk Road to complement the Belt and Road Initiative sounds ambitious but these are already completed and now bearing the fruits of development and prosperity to countries that opted to join this massive endeavor to resuscitate trading among the countries in the Pacific Rim.
Fuga Island is fortunate to be located along this maritime superhighway where tourists and traders can use as their destination point.
The Ceza covers the entire Municipality of Sta. Ana, including the Islands of Fuga, Barit, and Mabbag in the Municipality of Aparri. Approximately, the island has an area of 54,118 hectares ideal for prime development.
A $2-billion ‘Smart City’ fund has been allocated to Fuga Island and will be constructed under a Memorandum of Understanding between the CEZA and the Xiamen-based Fong Zhi Enterprise Corp.
It said, the investment is part of $3.9 (billion) worth of commitment made at the sidelines of the recently concluded 2nd Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing.
China’s interest in the area is to speed up development and tourism to realize the policy of establishing a global community of shared future in the south Pacific similar to what former Senator Juan Ponce Enrile has in mind when he enacted R.A. No. 7922 on February 24, 1995.
The CEZA chairman has already signed seven memoranda of understanding and two letters of intent with Chinese companies. This includes the Shanghai Jucheng Group, Pai Hao Investment, Shenzhen Dawah Real Estates, China Zhejiang Guannan Group, Golden Millennial Quickpay and Yatai International Holdings.
A separate strategic cooperation agreement was signed between FZEC with Isla Fuga Resort Inc. to take advantage of the pristine white sand beaches, unspoiled flora and fauna, and warm sea water.
This now contradicts the anxiety of Juan Ponce Enrile that China is about to “grab” the Fuga Island to secure a strategic advantage at the mouth of the Bashi Strait for naval ships entering the South China Sea.