The Philippines plans to develop a disputed island in the South China Sea into a tourism center with a 100-meter (330-ft) concrete wharf, officials said on Monday, a bold assertion of its sovereignty that is bound to rile China.
Last week, China protested the planned construction of a beaching ramp by the Philippines on the coral-fringed island, the second largest in the Spratlys and the biggest occupied by the Philippines in the contested region.
The 37-hectare (91-acre) island, with its Philippine name Pag-asa, is habitable, boasting fresh water and a small population of a few hundred people.
Beijing, which claims the South China Sea as its territory based on historical records, said last week that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the area.
The development of Pag-asa comes as a territorial squabble over the South China Sea enters a new and more contentious chapter, with claimant nations searching deeper into disputed waters for energy supplies while building up their navies and military alliances, especially with the United States.
Proven and undiscovered oil reserve estimates in the South China Sea range as high as 213 billion barrels, the US Energy Information Administration said in a 2008 report. That would surpass every country’s proven oil reserves except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, according to the BP Statistical Review.
US President Barack Obama has sought to reassure regional allies that Washington would serve as a counterbalance to a newly assertive China in the South China Sea, part of his campaign to “pivot” US foreign policy more intensely on Asia after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tourist attractions, diving spots

The Spratlys, a group of 250 uninhabitable islets spread over 427,350 sq km (165,000 sq miles), are claimed entirely by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
A Philippine navy commander said local authorities planned to transform military-held areas of the Spratlys into tourist attractions, including potential diving spots.
In the 1990s, Japanese tourists frequented the area for its pristine beaches and coral reefs, ferried by yacht from Cebu Island.
But the military will first build a pier on Pag-Asa, possibly by the second half of the year, Juan Sta. Ana, head of the Philippine Ports Authority, told Reuters. A panel of defense, tourism and transportation and communications officials will finalize a development plan for the island after April 8.
“We’ll know, by that time, when we will actually start and how long would it take for the pier to be constructed,” he added.
The wharf, worth about P200 million ($4.7 million), would be built at the end of a dilapidated airfield, he added.
Eugenio Biton-onon, mayor of Kalayaan—which includes Pag-Asa—a municipality in the Philippine island province of Palawan, said the new pier would also help local fishermen transport goods.
The Philippines pushed for discussion of the South China Sea dispute at a regional summit in Phnom Penh on Monday, despite its omission from the agenda by Cambodia, calling for progress on an issue at the top of Southeast Asia’s security agenda.
The decision by Cambodia to leave the issue off the agenda of this week’s Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ summit had raised suspicion it had come under pressure from close economic ally China.