July 26, 2019
The Philippine government does not recognize China’s claim that it has legal possession of areas in the disputed South China (West Philippine) Sea, a Palace official said on Thursday.
The disclaimer came after Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said Malacañang’s statement that China had “legal and constructive possession” of the West Philippine Sea would impair the Philippines’ position in its maritime dispute with China.
Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo acknowledged that China had “positional advantage” because of its military facilities in several disputed territories.
“As far as they are concerned, it’s theirs. It’s theirs. Bakit ba hindi natin maintindihan ‘yun (Why can’t we understand that)? Paulit-ulit na sinasabi ni Presidente (The
President has repeatedly said that), according to them, they own it. As far as they are concerned, legally, it’s theirs. Tayo naman (For us), as far as we are concerned, it’s also legally ours. Kaya nga nagkakaroon ng (That’s why there’s a) conflict kasi (because) both of us are claiming,” Panelo told reporters.
“Ang problema lang (The only problem is that), as the President has repeatedly said, and as stated also by the two security defense officials, they are in positional advantage. Kami ni Presidente, they are in possession, constructive possession because of their military hardware situated there,” he said.
Carpio, in an interview with CNN Philippines on Thursday, said Malacañang must retract its statement on China having “legal possession” of the West Philippine Sea or the country risks turning its back on a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in The Netherlands in 2016 that invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash line claim to the contested sea.
“The moment you say that China is in legal possession, you abandon the ruling, you contradict the ruling and you give China an ammunition to demolish our ruling,” he added.
But Panelo, who is also Duterte’s top legal counsel, argued that China could not claim the entire West Philippine Sea as an international tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines over claims in the disputed waters.
“As far as we are concerned, we’ve been ruled to be owning that portion of that territory or we have exclusive right to particular territories,” he said.
During his fourth State of the Nation Address on Monday, Duterte said China was already “in possession” of the West Philippine Sea.
But his defense and security officials were quick to clarify the President’s remark.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. on Tuesday said China was just “in position” in the disputed sea, as it had established its presence in key areas.
Esperon added that the Philippines was also beefing up its position in those waters.
The Philippines claims parts of the South China Sea within its exclusive economic zone and calls it the West Philippine Sea.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has sought to downplay Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing in exchange for improved ties with the world’s second largest economy.
He has also refused to flaunt the Philippines’ victory against China in a United Nations-backed arbitration court in 2016 that invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea.
The President defended his approach, saying Manila could not yet stand up to Beijing, whose military and economy were far superior.
Such advantages seemed evident in Chinese warships passing through Sibutu Strait four times since February this year, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
Lorenzana confirmed the passage in his speech at the turnover and blessing ceremony of newly procured assets for the Philippine Coast Guard in Manila, prompting him to call out Beijing to inform Manila first regarding such transit.
Lorenzana said he had received a report from a Marine battalion deployed near the area, saying no aircraft carrier was monitored passing through Sibutu Strait.
Carpio had disclosed that China’s CV-16 Liaoning aircraft carrier passed through the waters within Sibutu Strait, which is Philippine territory.
Lorenzana said he was able to talk with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinhua during the opening session of Senate on Monday about the passage of the Liaoning through the strait.
“He said that in the future, they will require those ships to inform the chinese embassy here in Manila about intended passage[s] in Sibutu and they will inform us,” the Defense chief told reporters.
Sibutu Strait, which separates Borneo from the Sulu archipelago, is a sealane between the main island of Tawi-Tawi province and the island of Sibutu, one of Tawi-Tawi’s towns.
Lorenzana said while commercial ships do not need permission to pass through territorial waters, warships should inform the Philippines about their transit.
He also disputed claims of Carpio that China had already “seized” the Sandy Cay, a sandbar near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, also part of Philippine territory.
Lorenzana said Sandy Cay was “too close” to Pag-asa Island, adding that not a single foreign party has been occupying the sandbar.
With a reports from DEMPSEY REYES
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