MANILA - Harry Roque, the spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, is wrong in saying that Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea which Chinese vessels swarmed in March, is far-flung and outside of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, a maritime law expert said Tuesday.
Atty. Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea warned that Roque’s erroneous remarks may be used by China to its advantage since he speaks for Duterte and is also a lawyer.
“Kung susukatin yung distansya mula sa Julian Felipe Reef hanggang sa Palawan - yung pinakamalapit po na point sa Palawan is nasa Rizal - ang sukat po nun is 175 nautical miles. So, that’s very well within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone,” Batongbacal told ABS-CBNs’ TeleRadyo.
(If we measure the distance from the Julian Felipe Reef to the nearest point in Palawan, which is Rizal town, that’s 175 nautical miles.)
“So, yung sinasabi po niyang napakalayo po n’yan at labas po yan sa EEZ, hindi po tama yun. At madaling patunayan yun, kahit sino na magsusukat,” he added.
(So, when he said that it’s too far and is already outside the EEZ, that’s incorrect. This can easily be proven by anyone who will measure the distance.)
Batongbacal also countered Roque’s statement that the reef is outside the Philippines’ EEZ “because it forms part of the territorial sea of McKennan Reef.”
“Yung McKennan Reef, hawak po siya ng Tsina. At meron daw po siyang territorial sea na 12 nautical miles, aabot po yan dun sa Julian Felipe Reef. Pero, ang McKennan Reef, kahit hawak siya ng Tsina, nasa loob pa rin siya ng Kalayaan Island Group and therefore, kini-claim din yan ng Pilipinas… bilang parte ng teritoryo ng Pilipinas,” Batongbacal said.
(McKennan Reef is already controlled by China. And it supposedly has a 12 nautical mile territorial sea, which covers the Julian Felipe Reef. But, even if McKennan Reef is under China’s control, it is within the Kalayaan Island Group and therefore the Philippines claims that it is part of its territory.)
“Kaya, yung territorial sea na yun, kahit umaabot siya sa Julian Felipe Reef, ibig sabihin nun, atin pa rin yung Julian Felipe Reef kasi atin yung McKennan Reef.”
(That’s why, that territorial sea reaching Julian Felipe Reef means the Julian Felipe Reef is ours because McKennan Reef is also ours.)
As to the issue of “possession” of the reef, as mentioned also by Roque, Batongbacal said no country for now has that in the legal and technical sense of the word.
Nonetheless, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea have been consistent in asserting that the reef is within the country’s EEZ and that it is part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands, noted Batongbacal.
“Parte (ang Julian Felipe Reef) ng Pilipinas, base sa ating mga batas - PD 1596 - dahil nasa loob siya ng Kalayaan Island Group. Tapos, kahit i-assume mo na hindi siya parte ng Pilipinas dahil hindi pa naman defined yung territorial sea ng Julian Felipe Reef…, it would still be part of our exclusive economic zone. So, kumbaga, in either case, sa atin po yun,” he said.
(The Julian Felipe Reef is part of the Philippines, based on our law, the Presidential Decree 1596, which says it’s part of the Kalayaan Island Group. Although, even if you assume that it’s not part of the Philippines because the territorial sea for Julian Felipe Reef has not yet been defined…, it would still be part our exclusive economic zone. So, in either case, that’s ours.)
PD 1596 was issued in 1978 by then President Ferdinand Marcos. Aside from specifying what forms part of the Kalayaan Island Group, it also created the Kalayaan Municipality as part of Palawan province, with Pag-asa Island as seat of government.
Asked about the implication of Roque’s statement, Batongbacal said, “Yun po yung nakakatakot talaga dun, lalo na kung opisyal yan na may pagkakaalam sa legal situation - kumbaga, abogado siya -, spokesperson siya ng Presidente ng Pilipinas, tapos magsasalita siya in public about yung legal situation, maaari po talagang gamitin yan laban sa atin ng China.”
(That’s worrisome, especially if the official has knowledge about the legal situation, since he’s a lawyer, and he’s also the spokesperson of the President of the Philippines, and he talks in public about such legal situation, China may really use that against us.)
"Lahat ng statement ng DFA, ng NTF-WPS, ng DND-AFP, lahat din ng ginawa ng AFP saka ng PCG at BFAR tungkol diyan sa Julian Felipe Reef yan, all of it is based on the assumption na nasa loob siya ng ating exclusive economic zone at parte siya ng Kalayaan Island Group. So, para ngang biglang sasabihin ngayon, 'Wala pala kayong karapatan.' So, mali din talaga ang dating," he added.
(All the statements of the DFA, the NTF-WPS, of the Department of the National Defense-Armed Forces of the Philippines, and all the activities of the AFP and the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources at the Julian Felipe Reef are based on the assumption that it is within our EEZ and it's part of the KIG. So, now, it's like they are being told, 'We have no rights there.' So, this makes Roque's statement confusing.)
The DFA's position on the reef remains unchanged despite Roque's pronouncement, 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.
Batongbacal said the Philippines is entitled to exploit, utilize and consume any resources, including fish, mineral and natural gas in features located within the Philippines’ EEZ.
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.
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China upon assuming power in 2016, even setting aside the arbitral award in favor of economic aid and investments from Beijing.