China-swarmed Julian Felipe Reef 'never' in PH possession: Palace

Jamaine Punzalan and Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 11 2021 03:48 PM | Updated as of May 12 2021 04:03 PM

DFA maintains reef is within country's EEZ

China-swarmed Julian Felipe Reef 'never' in PH possession: Palace 1
Chinese vessels are seen on March 22, 2021 in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the "incursion" violates the Philippines' maritime rights as the vessels are encroaching into Manila's sovereign territory. Photo courtesy of the Armed Forces of the Philippines

MANILA (UPDATE) — Malacañang on Tuesday said that Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the West Philippine Sea where Chinese boats swarmed beginning March is far-flung and outside of the country's exclusive economic zone, and had "never" been in Philippine possession.

Palace spokesman Harry Roque's statement contradicts the declaration of the Department of Foreign Affairs that the reef, located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan and 638.229 nautical miles from (China's) Hainan Island, "is part of the Kalayaan Island Group and lies in the (EEZ) of the Republic of the Philippines."

"Iyong mga napakadaming fishing boats sa Julian Felipe, iyan po'y napakalayo sa atin... Sa katunayan, ni minsan hindi po natin na-possess 'yan. Napakalayo po n'yan doon sa mga islang ating na-possess," Roque said in a press briefing.

(Those numerous boats at Julian Felipe, those are too far from us. In truth, never did we possess that. It's too far from the islands that we have possessed.)

In a statement he issued later in the day, he said, "While Julian Felipe Reef is not within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), because it forms part of the territorial sea of Mckennan which we claim in accordance with the Marcos Presidential Decree, it is in our country's interest to continuously pursue our claim through diplomacy or in the future, by submitting it to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice."

Presidential Decree No. 1596, issued in 1978 by then President Ferdinand Marcos, declared the Kalayaan Island Group, which covers the Julian Felipe Reef, as belonging and subject to the sovereignty of the Philippines.

The decree makes Kalayaan a municipality of Palawan province, with Pag-asa Island (international name: Thitu Island) as its seat.

The presence of some 200 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef in March reignited Manila and Beijing's assertions of their competing claims in the South China Sea, within which is the West Philippine Sea.

A 2016 ruling by a UN-backed arbitration court in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea.

China refused to pull out their ships despite repeated demands of Philippine officials, and criticisms from the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.

China calls Julian Felipe Reef as Niu'e Jiao, while Vietnam calls it da Ba Dau.

Roque said Vietnam also has a competing claim to the reef.

"Bakit Pilipinas, bakit si President (Rodrigo) Duterte ang tinatanong kung anong ginagawa niya d'yan? Bakit hindi tanungin ang mga Vietnamese dahil unang-un,a mas malapit sa kanila 'yan at pangalawa sila talaga ang nag-aagawan sa area na 'yan," he said at the press briefing.

"Bakit ang sisi, ibinibigay kay President Duterte? Hindi niya maintindihan." 

(Why the Philippines, why is the President being asked about what actions he is taking there? Why not ask the Vietnamese because first of all that's nearer to them, and second, they're competing for that? Why is blame given to President Duterte? He cannot understand.)

Duterte has been challenged to take a bolder move against China over the recent incursions, with a former Supreme Court justice warning that the swarming could be a prelude to occupation and building of a military base on the reef, as Beijing did on Mischief Reef, also in the West Philippine Sea, in 1995.

"They started with saying they just built fishermen shelter on Mischief Reef. Now, Mischief Reef is their air and naval base, they call it their Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea. It’s a huge air and naval base," retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had said.

Last week, President Duterte challenged Carpio to debate with him on the West Philippine Sea issue. The President later backed out of the face-off after Carpio accepted the challenge. 

Upon assuming power in 2016, Duterte forged friendlier relations with China, even setting aside the arbitral award in favor of economic aid and investments.

Last week, Duterte described the landmark award as just a piece of "paper" that he will dump in the wastebasket as, according to him, it led to nothing. 

Roque said his latest statement "doesn’t weaken anything" in the Philippine claim to the Julian Felipe Reef. 

"All we’re saying is we were never in possession of that area, and we're making a big thing out of the fact that that area naman was never under our possession," he said. 

"Pinalalaki po ‘yan ng ating mga kalaban talaga." 

(Our enemies are making a big deal out of that.) 

PHILIPPINES 'NEVER ABANDONED' CLAIM 

In his latest statement, Roque said the Philippines "has claim–and has never abandoned our claim–over Julian Felipe Reef by virtue of a Presidential Decree issued by former President Ferdinand Marcos saying it is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands." 

The reef "forms part of the territorial sea" generated by 2 high tide elevations (HTEs), namely the Mckennan currently occupied by China and Vietnam-occupied Sin Cowe, said Roque.

"Felipe Reef, together with the two HTEs that generated the territorial sea, has never been in actual physical possession of the Philippines, albeit made part of the province of Palawan" through Marcos' decree, he said.

"At the very least, Julian Felipe Reef should be delimited under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) given the overlaps of maritime zones," he said. 

The DFA's position on the reef remains unchanged despite Roque's pronouncement that is not within the country's EEZ, said Ivy Banzon-Abalos of the agency's Office of Strategic Communication and Research.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. also said in a tweet that the DFA has the "last word" on the matter.

"This is my last warning. When it comes to foreign affairs the Department of Foreign Affairs has the exclusive remit," he said.

"I don’t come from diplomacy; I come from a life that settled the hash of a lotta people who talked tough and ended up biting dirt. I don’t talk, I deal," he added.

China-swarmed Julian Felipe Reef 'never' in PH possession: Palace 2

In its April 5 statement, the DFA also reiterated a demand of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for the withdrawal of Chinese vessels from Julian Felipe Reef and Philippine maritime zones.

It said it will file daily protests as long as Chinese vessels remain there.

On April 12, the DFA summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to express displeasure over the “illegal lingering presence” of Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef and reiterated its “firm demand” that China “ensure the immediate departure of all its vessels from the area of Julian Felipe Reeef and other maritime zones of the Philippines.

Video courtesy of PTV