PH defense chief tells China its claims don't stand on solid ground
MANILA (2ND UPDATE) - Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said Sunday he is "considering a demarche" or a political step, even as he already filed a diplomatic protest, after China said that Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea is part of its territory.
"Coming and going fishing makes no claim of possession per se; it is only when Chinese embassy claimed the area as Chinese territory-as evidence by the swarm- that it becomes problematic. Considering a demarche," Locsin said on Twitter, without specifying.
Manila's top diplomat, who just met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last Friday in Fujian, China, lodged a diplomatic protest last March 21 over the presence of around 200 Chinese ships at the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef), which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, off Palawan province.
Meanwhile, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said the Philippines "has sovereign rights over the subject area and intrusion thereof is deemed an intrusive and unacceptable act on those rights."
Panelo said it is "indisputable" that the reef, approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town, Palawan, is "within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and pursuant to the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration."
If not resolved, the dispute, he added, could drive a wedge between the two countries who have boasted robust ties since President Rodrigo Duterte won the election in 2016.
Panelo said: "While we recognize the historical and cultural ties with China that has evolved into a productive relationship, its present territorial incursions is producing an unwelcome stain in their bond and may trigger unwanted hostilities that both countries would rather not pursue, as destructiveness consequences are not only undesirable, they are abhorrent as well and anathema to the peace of the region."
Thanks to China helping the Philippines acquire COVID-19 vaccines, relations between the two governments were strengthened further.
But Panelo said that charity didn't mean Manila was ignoring the issue on the reef, of which Manila said it would be "fiercely protective."
"Even as we appreciate the humanitarian gesture of our neighbor, we will not be blinded however by any act done by it in violation of international law and in derogation of our sovereign rights," he said.
The ships, which the Philippines describe as maritime militia, were first seen in the area on March 7, and are believed to have spread out to other features in the West Philippine Sea.
Chinese officials said the ships are fishing vessels and the reef, which they call Niu'e Jiao, is part of China's Nansha Islands.
"It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the water and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions," the Beijing's embassy in Manila reiterated on Saturday.
Its latest statement was made in response to the instruction of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier in the day for the Chinese ships to leave.
Lorenzana, in a reply Sunday, said China should "refrain from conducting activities that disturb regional and international peace and security."
"Its nine-dash line claim is without any factual or legal basis. This, together with its so-called historical claim, was flatly and categorically rejected by the arbitral tribunal," he said in a statement.
"The Philippines’ claims stand on solid ground, while China’s do not. China should respect Philippine sovereignty over the Kalayaan Islands, and its sovereign rights over its Exclusive Economic Zone as defined by UNCLOS and affirmed by the arbitral award."
China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea had been declared as having no legal basis by an international arbitration court in 2016.
"Oddly, if it is a strategy and not idiocy then swarming accomplishes nothing; they were doing this in consonance with claim of traditional fishing. Chinese were doing this in 1s, 2s and 3s," Locsin said.
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had warned that the presence of the Chinese ships at the Julian Felipe Reef may be a prelude to occupation and building of military bases as China did on Mischief Reef, also in the West Philippine Sea, in 1995.
Locsin did not say if he discussed the Julian Felipe Reef incident with Wang, although the Chinese embassy said both sides conveyed "their commitment to promote effective implementation... of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea."
The DoC, signed in 2002 by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines and three other claimants to the sea are members, provides that the parties "exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability."
Vice President Leni Robredo said on her radio show on Sunday that Lorenzana's strong statement, as well as the filing of diplomatic protest by the Department of Foreign Affairs, give her assurance that the administration is not abandoning the country's sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
"Mas na-bother ako sa statement ni Sec. Roque na parang sinabi niya, na non-issue naman," Robredo said, referring to Presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
(I was more worried over the statement of Sec. Roque that it's a non-issue.)
"Napakahalaga ng ating sovereignty. Hindi ito ipinagpapalit sa kahit anong consideration, kasi ito ay hindi lang para sa ating nandito ngayon. Pero para 'to sa mga susunod na henerasyon sa atin. So mahalaga kung papaano aaksyon yung leadership," she added.
(Our sovereignty is very important. This should not be swapped for any consideration, because this is not just for us who are alive now. But this is also for our next generation. So, it's important how our leadership acts on this.)
Several countries have also criticized China's recent incursion in the West Philippine Sea.