MANILA — Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Monday questioned the previous administration's withdrawal nearly a decade ago from Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, which remains a flashpoint in the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing.
A Philippine warship in 2012 figured in a standoff in Scarborough with Chinese vessels that blocked efforts to arrest Chinese poachers. The Philippines later withdrew its ship, while Chinese vessels remained there.
"If you believe, if your government at that time believes that that is yours, why will you withdraw?" Locsin said in a taped meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte.
"Why did we yield possession? That's, I think, the first thing you must ask. Who gave the order to withdraw that ship?"
Former foreign affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario earlier said the United States brokered a deal to end the 2012 standoff by making China and the Philippines withdraw their ships. However, Beijing "deceitfully breached" the deal, he said.
The Chinese ships were in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), noted Locsin.
"What we should have done, I don't want to I know better after the fact, but the truth is... I'll just look at the other side and say, 'You go, I'll go, but you go first," he said.
"Instead our side withdrew, so what happens to our claim that this is ours? Just give it up."
He said the United States, Manila's defense ally, had "no obligation" to help, unless the Philippines was attacked.
"Nobody was attacked, we withdrew. If the Chinese wanted to attack, there was nobody to attack. The other side left. And I don’t know if they would have attacked," Locsin said.
"They have no intention to do that," he added, quoting his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
If the Philippines "kept up" the standoff, it "might have ended up in just the two sides talking to each other," he said.
Del Rosario after the standoff pursued an arbitral case against China.
Shortly after Duterte took office in the 2016, a United Nations-backed court ruled in favor of Manila and junked Beijing's sweeping claims to the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
Almost a decade after the standoff, Chinese vessels continue to encroach into the Philippines EEZ.
Duterte last week likened to a piece of "paper" the landmark arbitration award. His spokesman Harry Roque said there is enforcement mechanism that would make Beijing follow the ruling.
Del Rosario and retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said Duterte "unfortunately" set aside the arbitration ruling in exchange for up to $24 billion in Chinese investment and aid pledges.
Duterte said he "never asked for anything" from China.
"I was asking [for] friendship, that was all," said Duterte.
"Kung ako'y nagsisinungaling, mag-resign ako bukas kaagad," he added.
(If I am lying, I will resign immediately tomorrow.)