PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte ordered troops to scrap plans of building a fishermen’s shelter on a sandbar in the disputed South China Sea after Beijing complained, his defense chief said Wednesday.
The military in August brought bamboo and palm roofing materials to one of three sandbars that emerged near one of their garrisons in the Spratlys archipelago in the contested sea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.
“We tried to put some structures (on) one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted,” Lorenzana told a regional security forum.
“And so the president came to know about this and he said: ‘Let’s pull out’.”
The apparent reversal comes at a time of improving relations between China and the Philippines, which until recently had bitterly contested their overlapping claims to the sea.
In Malacañang, Duterte on Wednesday said he would be confronting China about its intentions in the disputed West Philippine Sea waters, prior to his departure to attend the 31st Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.
In another apparent policy shift, Duterte said he remained suspicious of Beijing’s true intentions amid reports of continued militarization and reclamation in the disputed waters.
“So, it’s about time Asean countries, not really to confront, but to make clear to us what China really wants,” Duterte told reporters in Manila.
There is a proposed bilateral meeting between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Saturday in Da Nang, his last activity before he returns to the country to welcome world leaders for the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit to be hosted by Manila.
While the entire region is focused on the dangers of North Korea, China “has claimed every part of it” and “nobody has stopped them,” says Duterte.
Addressing Beijing, Duterte said: “You want to control the passage, or do we have free passage,” adding the sea row involved contesting countries which have overlapping jurisdictions.
“It’s about time, either in the bilateral or in the plenary, I should be bringing this important matter to the surface. So that we will know when can we be safe in traveling the China expansive—because they have claimed it now,” the President said.
Duterte likewise stressed that Beijing should not use the billions in ‘gratis’ it gave to the country as “bargaining chip” on the ongoing sea row.
Meanwhile, a former Foreign Affairs chief said if China failed to adhere to the rule of law, citing continuous reclamation, the Philippines and other claimant countries must start building their “defense capabilities for deterrence purposes.”
In a whole-day forum organized by his think tank, former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also cited the experts’ suggestions that the countries of the region should “thoughtfully ramp up their defense transfers and invest in select military platforms as a matter of necessity.”
“If trying to get everyone to adhere to the rule of law does not work, one other alternative is an approach characterized by a strategic build-up of defense capabilities for deterrence purposes,” Del Rosario said.
It was his first time, ever since he became a diplomat or even when he retired, to deliver a strong message against China, the country’s new ally, with its reported continuous reclamation in the disputed island.
Del Rosario was the foreign secretary who pioneered the Philippine decision to file a case against China over its excessive claims and ownership, citing the so-called nine-dash line of its Chinese map.
The Philippines won this case, but as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte won the Presidency, he announced that he would place the country’s victory at the back burner and start enhancing China-Philippine economic relationship.
“Some experts have suggested that the countries of the region should thoughtfully ramp up their defense transfers and invest in select military platforms as a matter of necessity,” Del Rosario noted.
But he admitted that a cycle of reactive militarization would surely raise the stakes and the tension, emphasizing that such action was the ultimate “prudent path.”
“In the words of a US-China relations expert, Ely Ratner, ‘Beijing will not compromise as long as it finds itself pushing on an open door’,” he said.
Del Rosario said for smaller states, giving up their sovereign equality and rights was not the ultimate solution.
“This is not a win-win solution, only a guarantee that we bequeath our grievances to our children. This option is totally unsatisfactory,” Del Rosario said.
He then warned the Asean leaders “It was not too long ago that our seas were less tumultuous and our differences were less intractable. Time is running short for us to return to that period.”
He also criticized the “lack of leadership” in the Asean, stressing the 10-member bloc has failed to stress the need to adhere international law.
Del Rosario said that “many” Asean states “have found themselves being pulled in different directions.”
“This has been worsened by a lack of leadership from among us. In a broader context, one can say that Asean is adrift,” Del Rosario said.
Lorenzana later told reporters that Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano advised Duterte there was an agreement between the two nations not to put up structures on new South China Sea features.
“We did not occupy it but some of our fishermen would like to establish a shelter there. They [China] saw it and they complained, so we had to pull out,” Lorenzana said.
China claims most of the strategically vital sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes, and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
It has been turning reefs in the sea into islands, installing military aircraft and missile systems on them.
China’s sweeping claims overlap with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
The Philippines had for many years been one of the region’s strongest opponents to Chinese expansionism.
A United Nations-backed tribunal ruled last year that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.
But the Philippines, under Duterte, decided not to use the verdict to pressure China, instead electing to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.
Lorenzana said the sandbar the military had planned to build the shelter on was a 500-square-meter outcrop located 4.6 kilometers from Philippine-held Thitu island.
Thitu is about 26 kilometers from one of the artificial Chinese islands.
Lorenzana said the sandbars were now empty and that Manila was not worried China would occupy them in turn.
Nevertheless, he said he was concerned over the potential for future confrontation as Chinese fishing fleets escorted by maritime patrol vessels showed up in waters considered a traditional Filipino fishing ground.
“We have troops there, we have ships. Their troops could confront ours. That’s the kind of encounter I’m talking about. Now if there’s a mis-encounter, misunderstanding or miscalculation it could result into violence,” Lorenzana said. AFP, Bloomberg, Francisco Tuyay, John Paolo Bencito, and Sara Susanne Fabunan