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December 12, 2018

DND holds off infra dev’t in Pag-Asa

The defense department is holding off repairs and other planned infrastructure projects on Pag-Asa Island, one of seven islets and two reefs occupied by Filipino troops in the disputed Spratly Islands.

Earlier, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario pointed out that the maintenance and repair of facilities in Pag-Asa Island are not covered by the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of parties involved in the West Philippine Sea territorial disputes.

“Repair and maintenance is okay but before we can move construction materials to Pag-Asa, we have to build a port and doing so could change the landscape. It’s not allowed in the DOC,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in reference to earlier approved plans for the repair of Rancudo airfield in the island.

Rancudo airfield is a key supply line for the troops and 200 civilian residents.

Pag-Asa Island is the seat of Kalayaan town of Palawan that has jurisdiction over the Philipine-held territory in the disputed region, claimed in whole or in part by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

“We cannot repair the (airfield) because the construction materials will be coming from outside. Getting inside, if it will be by aircraft it will be very expensive and very impractical. So you have to bring in the boat but the boat cannot come in because there is no pier,” Gazmin said.

Security officials have been calling on the government to start immediate repairs of the Philippine facilities in the region, not necessarily to antagonize China and other claimant-countries, but to improve the morale and welfare of troops manning the outposts.

One security official noted that it is only the Philippines that is not doing anything to improve living conditions of the troops manning the outposts located in the middle of nowhere.

He said this is contrast to what China, Vietnam and Taiwan are doing in their respective controlled areas.

Marines are deployed on a three-month rotation basis in the disputed region but this is now being threatened by the increasing presence of Chinese warships and coast guard vessels in the area.

Ayungin Shoal, located within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is being guarded by Marines on board a grounded Navy supply ship, the BRP Sierra Madre.

China, despite being a party of the DOC signed in 2000, has become very aggressive in laying its maritime claim to almost the entire South China Sea, building artificial islets on four reefs despite protests by the Philippine government.

Six- and three-story buildings, as well as ports, helipads, runway with gun implacement, are now sprouting out from these Chinese-built and controlled artificial islets formerly known as Kennar Reef, Calderon Reef and Burgos Reef by Manila.

Aside from completing its reclamation of these former obscure West Philippine Sea areas, Beijing is also developing further the Panganiban or Mischief Reef, an area located within the territorial waters of Palawan.

‘Serious concern’

China’s Foreign Ministry expressed serious concern yesterday after the Philippines said it would resume repair and reconstruction works on disputed islands in the South China Sea, saying Manila was infringing on Chinese sovereignty.

The Philippines had halted activities last year over concerns about the effect on an international arbitration complaint filed against China.

Manila called on all countries last October to stop construction work on small islands and reefs in the South China Sea, most of which is claimed by China.

China itself is undertaking massive reclamation works in the area, while Taiwan, Malaysia and Vietnam have also been improving their facilities.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said it was “seriously concerned” by the remarks of Secretary Del Rosario.

“On the one hand the Philippines makes unreasonable criticism about China’s normal building activities on its own isles, and on the other announces it will resume repairs on an airport, runway and other illegal constructions on China’s Spratly Islands, which it illegally occupies,” Hua said.

“This is not only a series infringement of China’s sovereignty, but it also exposes the Philippines’ hypocrisy,” she told a daily news briefing, calling on the Philippines to withdraw from the islands.

The Philippine foreign ministry said the works, including repairs to an airstrip, did not violate an informal code of conduct in the South China Sea because they would not alter the status quo in the disputed area. The 2002 code was signed by China and 10 Southeast Asian states in Phnom Penh.

In 2013, Manila filed an arbitration case at The Hague questioning the maritime boundaries claimed by Beijing. Del Rosario said Manila expects a decision in February next year. ; – With Reuters

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DND holds off infra dev’t in Pag-Asa

US, Cuba spar over migration policy at historic Havana talks

HAVANA (AP) — The United States said Wednesday it dispatched additional ships to the Florida Straits to halt Cuban rafters but rebuffed demands for broader changes to U.S. migration rules that dominated the first day of talks between Cuban officials and the highest-ranking U.S. delegation to the island in more than three decades.

Cuba urged the U.S. to end immigration privileges that grant virtually automatic legal residency to any Cuban who touches U.S. soil. Its government blames the Cold War policy for luring tens of thousands of Cubans a year to make perilous journeys by sea and land to try to reach the United States. Still, many Cubans are worried the elimination of the rules would take away their chance to have a better life in the U.S.

“I don’t want them to get rid of it,” said Mile Nieves, a 42-year-old Havana resident. “I’ve got my whole family there and I’m desperate to leave.”

U.S. officials reported a spike in the number of rafters attempting to reach Florida after the Dec. 17 announcement that the countries would move to normalize ties. Those numbers appear to have slowed in recent days.

In Washington, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement saying additional Coast Guard cutters have been deployed to stop Cuban and Haitian migrants from reaching the United States by boat.

America’s “wet foot, dry foot” approach, which generally shields Cubans from deportation if they touch U.S. land, remains in effect, Johnson said. But he stressed that those trying to come by sea would most likely be interdicted and returned.

“Cuba wants a normal relationship with the U.S., in the broadest sense but also in the area of migration,” said Cuba’s head of North American affairs, Josefina Vidal. She called for the U.S. to end “exceptional treatment that no other citizens in the world receive, causing an irregular situation in the flow of migrants.”

American officials instead pressed Cuba to take back tens of thousands of its nationals whom U.S. authorities want to deport because they have been convicted of crimes. No progress was made on that issue, according to an official present in the meeting. The official wasn’t authorized to speak on the matter and demanded anonymity.

The talks continue Thursday with broader negotiations on how the U.S. and Cuba can end a half-century of enmity — as promised last month by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro. The nations hope to re-establish embassies and post ambassadors to each other’s capitals in the coming months.

After meeting with the Cubans for more than three hours, State Department officials said the annual migration talks had been easier than usual because the two sides felt comfortable focusing almost entirely on migration. In past years, the migration talks served as a pretext for a wider range of bilateral disagreements.

“Today’s discussions prove that despite clear differences that remain between our countries, the United States and Cuba can find opportunities to advance our mutual, shared interests as well as engage in respectful and thoughtful dialogue,” said the State Department’s Alex Lee, who headed the U.S. delegation ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s arrival of Roberta Jacobson.

Jacobson is the top American diplomat for Latin America and most senior U.S. official to visit Cuba in more than three decades.

Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s 7th District in Miami, said “aggressively” stepped-up patrols have eased the spike in rafters seen immediately after the twin announcements last month by Castro and Obama.

“We have seen a slowdown in the last two weeks,” Somma said. He wouldn’t say how many more U.S. boats were patrolling the Florida Straits and Caribbean.

The Havana talks were occurring hours after Obama said U.S. efforts to loosen the five-decade trade embargo have “the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere” and are a “new hope for the future in Cuba.”

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Associated Press writers Anne-Marie Garcia and Andrea Rodriguez in Havana and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.

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US, Cuba spar over migration policy at historic Havana talks