MANILA — Malacañang said on Wednesday “no one can diminish” the 5-year-old arbitral award that junked Beijing's claims to the West Philippine Sea, despite China's recent remark that the award was a piece of “wastepaper.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, on the fifth anniversary of the ruling on Monday, said that the arbitration award was “illegal, null and void.”
“It is nothing more than a piece of wastepaper,” he said at a press briefing, quoted by multiple news reports.
In response, Palace spokesman Harry Roque quoted President Rodrigo Duterte's remark in September last year before the United Nations General Assembly, where he said the Philippines “firmly reject[s] attempts to undermine” the ruling.
“The President in the UN said it forms part of international law, and no one can diminish that,” Roque said in a press briefing.
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that Beijing had no historic title over the South China Sea, as it claims.
It also said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and breached the Philippines' sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank, which is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
Duterte has pursued friendly ties with China and shelved the ruling in pursuit of investment and infrastructure funding from Beijing.
In May, he said the arbitral ruling was a piece of "paper" that could be thrown into the wastebasket.
Vice President Leni Robredo has called on the administration to “show a little courage” against Beijing, after its latest remark on the resource-rich waterway.
“Hindi ko po alam kung anong gusto niyang tapang ipakita,” said Roque, adding that Duterte “courageously” spoke for the arbitral ruling before the UN.
(I do not know that kind of courage she wants to be shown.)
China maintains a constant presence of coastguard and fishing boats in the South China Sea to assert its claim of sovereignty, including hundreds in the Spratly islands, where the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also have claims.
Officials during the Malacañang press briefing belied some fishermen's reports of Chinese harassment in the waterway.
Masinloc Mayor Seniang Lim said the issue was rehashed because elections were nearing.
“‘Yan po ay walang katotohanan dahil po sa ngayon lagi pong naka-monitor ang LGU… Sila po ay nakakapaghanapbuhay nang maayos,” she said.
(There is no truth to that because the local government unit is always monitoring the area. Fishermen are able to earn a livelihood.)
“Maraming isda na sariwa ngayon sa aming bayan… Wala naman pong namimirwisyo at humaharang sa kanila,” added the mayor.
(There are a lot of fresh fish in our town. Nobody is harassing and blocking them.)
The Philippine Coast Guard, which patrols the area, has not received any reports of harassment, added PCG spokesman Cdre. Armand Balilo.
— With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters