MANILA— China failed to occupy any new territory in the West Philippine Sea during President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, despite tensions in the area, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday.
"Ngayon gusto ko lang sabihin sa mga mamamayan na mula noong pumasok si Presidente ay wala namang nakuhang bagong teritoryo—kinuhang bagong teritoryo iyong China," Lorenzana said in a public briefing.
"Hindi na rin sila nag-occupy ng mga vacant—unoccupied features. Saka palagi naming sinasabi na not an inch of our West Philippine Sea has been—kinuha ng China during the time ano," he added.
The West Philippine Sea is in Manila's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in almost entirety.
Beijing has continued to ignore a 2016 ruling by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated its expansive claims in the resource-rich waters. China instead ramped up militarization and blocked access to many areas in the South China Sea.
Lorenzana, however, claimed that the Duterte administration was able to talk to the Chinese government "peacefully" and reiterated the importance of international law in settling disputes.
"[Duterte] was able to talk to the leaders of the Chinese government na itutuloy natin iyong ating peaceful coexistence muna habang sinusukat natin kung sino ba talaga iyong may-ari ng lugar na iyan ‘cause it’s disputed eh," he added.
Lorenzana also described the current situation in the area as "quiet and stable," despite a Chinese vessel firing water cannons at Filipino boats trying to deliver supplies to Marines stationed in BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal.
Chinese maritime militia vessels have also been spotted in various parts of the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has claimed that Ayungin Shoal, known in China as Ren'ai Jiao, is part of China’s Nansha Qundao — the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands.
"Wala naman tayong nakikitang mga kaguluhan. Unang-una siguro dahil nag-uusap na iyong mga gobyerno natin, I think pinakamagandang solusyon diyan ay still diplomatic," he said.
At the height of the pandemic last year, US-based firm Simularity revealed significant changes in 7 areas of the China-occupied Mischief Reef, showing what appeared to be movement and more structures built.
The reef, the largest among the 7 artificial islands built by China in the Spratlys, was first occupied by China in 1995 through the construction of wooden barracks that Beijing claimed were shelters for fishermen.
It is now a 550-hectare air and naval outpost, capable of housing and deploying military assets and conducting surveillance over the West Philippine Sea.
Six other large artificial islands have been built by China in the South China Sea in the last 10 years, with construction accelerated during the height of the Philippines’ filing of a case against China’s maritime incursions before the arbitral tribunal in The Hague.
The Philippines has increased its naval presence in the West Philippine Sea, Lorenzana said, with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources also helping the Philippine Coast Guard patrol the area.
"Mayroon na rin tayong mga inangkat na mga bagong barko diyan, nagpapatrolya na tayo... so dumami iyon dahil nadagdagan iyong ating mga assets nitong mga nakaraang taon," he explained.
Duterte earlier this month said Manila and Beijing "do not have any quarrel" and could "talk" about the disputed Spratly Islands.
Since taking power in 2016, Duterte has moved closer to China, but faced pushback from the Philippine public and concern in the military wary of Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.
Duterte has described Manila's arbitral win as a "piece of paper" meant to be thrown in the trash bin.
— with reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News