MANILA - The spokesperson of President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn flak for saying that the Philippines should perhaps “be thankful” to China for the “maritime rescue center” it claims to have built on Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), one of the maritime features being claimed by the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan said Panelo’s statements on Chinese activities in the disputed waters would make one “wonder sometimes which country he was speaking for.”
“His very tone clearly manifests the language of a Chinese puppet,” Pangilinan, also president of the opposition Liberal Party, said in a statement.
Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, meanwhile, said Panelo’s remark makes it appear that the Philippines is “recognizing and agreeing to their right to occupy and govern over the said territory," referring to China.
“It is ironic to claim that we should be grateful for the establishment of a rescue center while we also say that we protest against anything that steps on our sovereignty,” said Alejano, who is running for the Senate in the May 2019 mid-term elections.
“Allowing China to occupy a highly contested reef is in itself an act of surrendering. What they are doing is an outright assertion of dominance.
Alejano added that Manila cannot even guarantee whether the supposed rescue center was actually meant to help distressed seamen, as it could be used to “facilitate intelligence gathering and for faster deployment of Chinese military forces in the area they are illegally claiming.”
Another opposition senatorial bet, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno, also slammed the presidential spokesperson.
“No, Mr. Panelo, Filipinos will be thankful kapag mayroon na tayong mga pinuno sa gobyerno na hindi ibinebenta ang sarili nating teritoryo.”
(No, Mr. Panelo, Filipinos will be thankful if we have government leaders who will not sell our own territory.)
“Hindi makatarungang mismong ang ating pamahalaan pa ang nagsusuko ng ating sariling teritoryo sa ibang bansa, ngayong sila pa nga ang dapat na unang-unang nagtatanggol dito.”
(It’s not right that our own government is the one surrendering our territory when they should be its foremost defender.)
In a press briefing on Thursday, Panelo was asked to react on China’s admission that it had built a maritime rescue center on the disputed reef.
He responded: “Maybe we should be thankful. I share the sentiment of [Defense] Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that, ‘that could help seamen in distress in that area.’ It can help everybody.”
Panelo then went on to stress that the Chinese facility should in no way affect Philippine claims to the South China Sea reefs on which China has built artificial islands.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Panelo claimed that he was misquoted.
The Philippines in 2016 defeated China in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal, which invalidated Beijing’s massive claim to the strategic sea lane.
China has ignored the ruling and insists it has sovereignty over the vital sea lane. Duterte, meanwhile, has raised little opposition to China’s continued activities in the area, as he pursued better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.