MANILA (UPDATE) — Two presidential contenders on Thursday asserted the Philippines' rights to Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea, after Manila rejected Beijing's demand to remove a dilapidated Navy ship from the area.
A 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed arbitration court junked China's historical claims to the area, which is part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone, said Vice President Leni Robredo.
"Iyong facts, hindi naman siya debatable. Hindi naman ito subject to opinion kasi mayroon nang ruling," Robredo said in a chance interview in Kawit, Cavite.
(The facts are not debatable. This is not subject to opinion because there is a ruling already.)
"Dapat iyong enjoyment ng resources doon ay exclusive para sa mga Pilipino,” added the opposition leader.
(The enjoyment of resources there should be exclusive for Filipinos.)
Another presidential aspirant, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, expressed doubts on China's remark that the Philippines should "honor its commitment and remove its illegally grounded vessel".
"I don’t think there was an agreement. And I couldn’t imagine the Philippine government, much less the foreign affairs department na papasok sa kasunduan na tatanggalin natin ‘yung [BRP] Sierra Madre," Lacson told a media conference.
"May mga tropa tayo doon... Talagang sa atin ‘yan, napakaliwanag. Magsukatan na lang, atin talaga ‘yan," he added.
(I couldn’t imagine the Philippine government, much less the foreign affairs department would enter an agreement for us to remove the Sierra Madre. We have troops there. It is really ours. Even if the area is measured, it is ours.)
"We have to insist on our maritime zones… Ewan ko kung ano ang plano nila diyan, kung sinasabi nilang kanila ‘yon, umusog tayo—hindi tayo uusog," said Lacson's his running-mate, Senate President Vicente Sotto III.
(I don't know their plans, but if they say it is theirs and we should move, we will not.)
Lacson also said the government needs to refurbish and reinforce BRP Sierra Madre.
"Dapat huwag natin bayaang iusog. Kung kakayanin, lagay tayo ng isang barko doon na functioning," Lacson said as he notes that the grounded vessel has been decaying and is in dire need of repair.
(We should not let this ship be removed. If we can, let's send another ship that is functioning.)
Lacson said reclaiming the shoal would bring other problems and might be too costly.
The Navy ship Sierra Madre was intentionally grounded at the Ayungin Shoal, located about 195 kilometers off Palawan, in 1999 to reinforce Manila's sovereignty claims in the Spratly archipelago. A small contingent of the Philippine military is staying on the rusty ship.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana dismissed China's claim on Wednesday that the Philippines committed to remove the BRP Sierra Madre.
"If there was commitment, it would have been removed a long time ago," he told reporters.
Lorenzana said it is China that is "trespassing" in the area when its coast guard interrupted a resupply mission for the troops last week.
China claims the majority of the South China Sea as its own, using a "nine-dash line" on maps that an international arbitration ruling in 2016 said has no legal basis.
Ayungin Shoal is within the Philippines' 200 nautical mile EEZ, as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory.
"We have two documents attesting that we have sovereign rights in our EEZ while they don't, and their claims have no basis," Lorenzana said.
"China should abide by its international obligations that it is part of."
LENI SEEKS CONSISTENCY, PING WANTS OWN MAP
Robredo said she hopes the Philippines would be "very consistent" in rejecting China's demands over the waterway.
"Nakikita naman natin na kapag consistent tayo, nagba-back off naman. Kapag consistent tayo sa posisyon natin, nakukuha natin iyong tulong at cooperation ng ibang mga bansa, at ito naman iyong pinaglalaban natin from the very start," the Vice President said in a chance interview.
(We see that when we are consistent, they back off. When we are consistent with our position, we get the help and cooperation of other countries, and this is what we have been fighting for from the very start.)
Her running-mate Sen. Francis Pangilinan filed a resolution seeking a legislative inquiry on how Chinese actions affect the livelihood of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea.
Meanwhile, Lacson filed a bill aiming to map out the country’s maritime zones, much like the 9-dash line of China.
"Iyong UNCLOS, international law. Pero kailangan meron din tayong municipal law na tinatawag... para ma-enhance, ma-reinforce ‘yung ating pag-aari dito sa West Philippine Sea sa mga areas diyan," he said.
(UNCLOSE is an international law. But there needs to be a so-called municipal law to enhance, enforce our claims in the areas in the West Philippine Sea.)
While his stance on the disputed waters is unbcompromising, Lacson believes the Philippines should maintain trade relations with China.
”Mas maganda i-maintain natin especially trade relations with China. I-maintain natin. Kaya lang, i-assert natin lagi 'yung ating sovereignty and sovereign rights over the exclusive economic zone at saka 'yung iba pa na sovereignty natin yung nakataya," he said.
(It's better if we maintain our trade relations with China. We maintain it, and at the same time, we assert our sovereignty and sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone and others that we have stakes in.)
— With reports from Zandro Ochona and Adrian Ayalin, ABS-CBN News; Reuters