MANILA - Malacañang on Tuesday maintained that China has not breached its “good faith commitment” in the South China Sea, as the government of President Rodrigo Duterte continues to downplay the bitter maritime dispute in pursuit of better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.
Chinese state-run China Central Television earlier released images of the Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan Reef) showing a fortified airbase and new military installations, despite an earlier promise by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize the South China Sea.
Roque said the recent development in the man-made island does not constitute a breach of Beijing’s commitment not to build new islands in the disputed sea, through which trillions of dollars worth of trade passes every year.
“Kagitingan is one of the islands that it had already reclaimed. And this is also one of the islands subject of the arbitral tribunal’s decision that it is within the Philippine economic zone ‘no,” Roque said in a news briefing.
“So when we invoke the good faith of China, it is against making further reclamations and not making further works on islands that it had already reclaimed.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Monday said China’s continued militarization of its man-made islands in the South China Sea was already a violation of its commitment to maintain peace and stability in the area, considered as one of the potential flashpoints in the Southeast Asian region.
Lorenzana said if the new military installations would be proven, Manila might lodge a diplomatic protest against Beijing.
While his statement on the matter contradicts with the defense chief’s, Roque, nonetheless, recognized that the recent military build-up in Fiery Cross was “certainly not okay because, of course, it constitutes a further threat to peace and security in the area.”
“But the point is, has there been a breach of Chinese commitment not to reclaim any new islands or shoals in the area? For as long as there is none, then we continue to respect that they are true to their commitment not to do so,” he said.
He added that a diplomatic protest against China is the "proper remedy" that the Department of Foreign Affairs may undertake.
China has been improving its facilities in its man-made islands in the South China Sea, some of which lie within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, despite its legal defeat in a case filed by the Philippines before a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal.
Roque said the tribunal’s ruling, which invalidates China’s claim to almost all of the sea, “already articulated the correct legal position of the country and the correct legal principle that it is the Philippines as a coastal state that should exercise sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone.”