Rody: No war over sandbar

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has said there is no reason for him to defend Sandy Cay, a sandbar near Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) in the West Philippine Sea as the presence of Chinese ships there does not count as an ‘invasion.’

Responding to warnings by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that Beijing is allegedly virtually occupying the new geological feature some 2.5 nautical miles off Pag-asa Island— Duterte simply brushed off the presence of Chinese ships  as a maneuver to “patrol” the area since “we are friends.”

“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?” Duterte told reporters in a media roundtable Monday night. 

“They’re not invading. What Carpio is saying isn’t true, they are just there but they are not claiming anything,” he added. 

Pag-asa Island

In the House of Representatives, a staunch critic of Duterte Tuesday denounced the continuing activities of China in the West Philippine Sea, calling them “very concerning.”

Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, former marine officer, said he received information that a Chinese flag mounted on a steel pipe was discovered planted on a Sandy Cay.

In related developments:

• Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Tuesday denied Carpio’s claim that China allegedly invaded part of a Philippine territory.

At the sidelines of the budget deliberations conducted by the House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations, Cayetano said there was no such thing as China’s invasion of a Philippine islet.

“The problem with some of the press statements that came out had wrong facts and wrong premises, wrong conclusion,” Cayetano said as he faced lawmakers on the Department of Foreign Affairs’ proposed P19.57-billion budget under the 2018 P3.767-trillion General Appropriations Bill.

“One of them was saying [there is an] invasion of the sandbars sa Pag-asa. What does an invasion mean? It means inaagaw mo or tinatayuan ng ibang country. That is not true,” Cayetano added.

Carpio claimed Chinese ships have been guarding Sandy Cay, but Cayetano assured the public the government has been trying to resolve the issue in a peaceful and diplomatic manner.

• At the same time, the House of Representatives’ committee on appropriations on Tuesday vowed to study a forthcoming proposal from Cayetano regarding a dedicated budget for “West Philippine Sea concerns.”

“There is more than meets the eye regarding the geopolitical terrain in the WPS and we trust Secretary Cayetano to come up with a sensible and ultimately advantageous plan to address the current issues there,” Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, the panel chairperson, said after hearing Cayetano’s manifestations during the panel discussions on the DFA’s proposed P19.57-billion budget for 2018.

“We will do our job whether you add a peso or not. Of course the more resources you give us, the more we can assert not only our rights but develop the institutional memory and institutional strength in fighting for our claims,” Cayetano told the Appropriations panel.

Alejano said the activities of China in the disputed waters were discovered around third week of July 2017, where a Chinese vessel allegedly erected the said 3-meter high Chinese flag on a Sandy Cay which is known to be within a Philippine-controlled area.

Alejano told a news conference: “The continuous activities of China in the disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea are very concerning. 

“These recently reported incidents only reveal that Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea have not stopped amid warmer relations between the Philippines and China. Furthermore, this contradicts China’s supposed commitment to peace and stability in the area through maintaining the status quo.

“On this account, I call on China, as part of the family of nations, to stay true to its public pronouncements and assurances by matching its actions on the ground. This has become a pattern wherein one is said and another is done.”

Alejano renewed his call on Philippine government officials, in particular the Department of Foreign Affairs, to be transparent on issues pertaining the West Philippine Sea. 

“Their denial or silence and inaction are not helping while things like these happen on the ground. While the Philippines is pursuing bilateral engagements with China, the government has the responsibility to inform the public through providing appropriate and careful information meant for public consumption,” Alejano said. 

Sandy Cay, which is well within Pag-asa’s 12 nautical miles territorial waters, reportedly has two Chinese frigates, a coast guard vessel and two military fishing boats, according to Carpio. 

Duterte said Beijing’s ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua and the Chinese foreign ministry had assured him they would not occupy nor reclaim anything within the disputed waters — likewise nixing suggestions for the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest. 

On Sunday, Carpio urged Duterte and Cayetano to defend and protect the country’s territory since they have both “vowed to the Filipino people that they will not concede a single inch of Philippine territory to China.”

Sandy Cay, which was extensively discussed in the final ruling of the July 12, 2016 arbitral tribunal, was described as a “disappearing high-tide sandbar” between Pag-asa and Zamora (Subi) Reef and only appears for a few months before it disappears.

It would re-appear again either in the same place or in a nearby place and disappear when the sands disperse during storms and only re-appear as a result of the action of the waves, Carpio said. 

During that time, the “arbitral tribunal did not deem it necessary to decide whether Sandy Cay is a high-tide or low-tide elevation because there are low-tide elevation rocks in the Pag-asa Reef between Pag-asa and Subi Reef that could be used as baselines of Pag-asa even without Sandy Cay. 

These rocks, as baselines, extend the territorial sea of Pag-asa to include Subi Reef which is a low-tide elevation forming part of the continental shelf of the Philippines.”

“Apparently, because of China’s dredging in Subi Reef, pulverized corals drifted and gathered at Sandy Cay and made it permanently above water at high-tide. As a high-tide elevation, Sandy Cay is now land or territory capable of sovereign ownership with its own territorial sea and territorial airspace,” Carpio said.

Duterte likewise denied claims that Chinese ships allegedly prevented a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel from approaching Sandy Cay. 

“That is not true. China would not do that,” said Duterte.

Should there be a violation and the Philippines confronts China, Duterte maintained he would not invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, which requires its military to come to the aid of the Philippines.

Topics: President Rodrigo Duterte , Sandy Cay , sandbar , Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) , West Philippine Sea , China , Chinese ships , Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio , Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano
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