Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Wednesday the Philippines has filed close to 100 diplomatic protests against Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea in two years even as National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. insisted that the country is not abandoning the favorable ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In a briefing with the House special committee on the West Philippine Sea, Cayetano said the Philippines has been filing diplomatic protests for two years already, but they chose not to announce these regularly.
“The critics want us to announce it loudly and to confront China each and every time to the media. That is not conducive [to] the ongoing talks,” he said.
He also said he has assured acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio—an outspoken critic of the administration’s West Philippine Sea policies—that the department is fighting for the country’s interests, without making a fuss over it.
During the meeting, Cayetano also fended off a call from Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano that he resign, for constantly appeasing the Chinese.
“We’re not asking you to trust us blindly. We’re asking you to trust us because that is the work of diplomats,” Cayetano said. “If you assign someone in your organization, may it be Magdalo, to do the negotiation, if you don’t trust him, replace him. But we’re in a democracy. We elected President Duterte, he was transparent that he will be going bilateral [in his approach to the South China Sea dispute]. And we have been reporting to you and the public,” he added.
At the same meeting, Cayetano said any missiles China has deployed on three Philippine reefs in the West Philippine Sea form “a defensive system and it is not against the Philippines.”
He said he had assurances from Beijing that the missiles deployed at Fiery Cross (Kalayaan), Subi and Mischief reefs are aimed at China’s potential enemies and not at the Philippines.
“China also assured us with our good relationship that we are not their enemy,” he said.
Since he assumed office in June 2016, President Duterte has sought to strengthen ties between Manila and Beijing that were strained by the maritime dispute.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, questioned China’s claims before a United Nations-backed arbitration court. The Philippines won, but the verdict was handed down during Duterte’s term.
Esperon on Wednesday assured the country that the administration has not abandoned the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of the Philippines in the South China Sea dispute.
“This administration does not and will not abandon the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea disputes. This is merely set aside in the meantime, in line with the efforts of government at promoting peace, stability, and cordial relations among claimant countries in the region,” Esperon said in a statement sent to media Wednesday.
In order for the country to exercise its sovereignty and jurisdiction over Philippine territorial waters, Esperon said the country will take full advantage of the tribunal ruling “at the proper time.”
Esperon also clarified that Duterte administration still observes the actions of the various claimants in the disputed South China Sea.
“We note with serious concern the growing militarization in the area, such as the deployment of military assets especially on features near the Philippine territory,” said Esperon, saying that the Philippine government is not neglectful in undertaking diplomatic actions against any nation.
The government has started the construction of five lighthouses on its claimed features in the disputed region in the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea to ensure safety navigation not only to Filipino ships but and other foreign vessels that might pass near the islands, according to National Security Esperon.
In a forum held in Manila, the NSA chief said the government is building lighthouses on Pag-Asa, Likas, Parola, Patag, and Kota islands, all part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands, at an estimated cost P10 million.
“Lighthouses are also now being constructed on features held by the Philippines to ensure the safety of navigation,” Esperon said.
He said the government is also upgrading its military facilities on Pagasa Island, the largest of nine features the Philippines occupies in the West Philippine Sea.
“This is necessary for trade, the preservation of the livelihood of the fisherfolk, and the timely delivery of basic necessities of the community in the municipality of Pag-Asa,” he said.
“The upgrading of the Pag-Asa runway would also allow the government to send regular supplies to troops guarding the territory and its residents. “What is more important is upgrading facilities for the comfort of our people,” he said.
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis vowed Tuesday that the US would keep confronting China over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, where Beijing has established a significant military presence on contested islands.
Mattis’s remarks came after Beijing voiced “strong dissatisfaction” Sunday after two US warships sailed by an island in the disputed Paracel Island chain.
“You’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff [such operations] or state their resentment of them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we will continue that,” Mattis told reporters as he flew to Hawaii.
The US Navy periodically conducts “freedom of navigation” operations in the contested waterway, where it sails close to island features China has built into military facilities as a way of showing it rejects any territorial claims.
“We are going out of our way to cooperate with Pacific nations, that’s the way we do business in the world, but we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law,” Mattis said.
Sunday’s operation was conducted just over a week after Beijing flew nuclear-capable bombers to a disputed island, drawing immediate criticism from the US.
Last week, the Pentagon pulled its invitation to China to join maritime exercises in the Pacific over Beijing’s “continued militarization” of the South China Sea.
Beijing has been building artificial islands to reinforce its claim over most of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite protests from Southeast Asian countries.
Its neighbors, particularly some of those involved in maritime disputes over the waters, have expressed fears China could eventually restrict freedom of navigation and overflight.
“Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this,” Mattis said.
“The concerns have come to me not just from American government circles, but also from foreign nations that are concerned, very concerned about this continued militarization of features in the South China Sea.”
Mattis was heading to Hawaii to attend a change-of-command ceremony for the US military’s Pacific Command.
The current head, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated to be the new ambassador to South Korea. He will be replaced by Admiral Philip Davidson.
Mattis is then due to attend a regional security conference in Singapore.
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