Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Friday revealed that he had called off plans to deploy the country’s naval forces to Scarborough Shoal in July 2016 as President Rodrigo Duterte warned them not to offend China.
Lorenzana said the Philippine Navy was supposed to drive away the Chinese nationals in the West Philippine Sea
, but he decided to call it off after Duterte told them not to lock horns with Beijing as such a move would provoke the Asian giant.
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“When the arbitral ruling was about to be announced, we were all in Malacañang so when it came out, we had this meeting with the president... He said we should not be... overly celebrating because we might offend China so that’s what happened,” Lorenzana said in a speech during a forum on maritime disputes.
At the time, the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China’s nine-dash line claim over the resource-filled waters.
ruling declared that the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank in the South China Sea are all within the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.
“A week before the ruling was announced, [then] US Defense Secretary Robert Gates [called]. He said, the ruling will come out soon, and we think it is in your favor. So I talked to the Philippine Navy...[to see] if we can field a small force in Scarborough Shoal, drive away the Chinese there, recover the Scarborough Shoal,” Lorenzana said.
The DND chief said he and other members of the Cabinet met with the President in the Palace on the day the ruling was announced.
“He (Duterte) decided to call us, so as to make it a soft landing [in terms of our response to the UN ruling]. He told us we should not be overly celebrating, because we might offend China,” he said.
He remembered that then Foreign Affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay was criticized for not appearing victorious when announcing the tribunal’s decision.
“People thought we should be celebrating, laughing, shouting about the ruling
,” Lorenzana added.
The Defense chief also admitted that China attempted to bar the country’s plan to repair structures on Pag-asa Island, considered one of the biggest islands in the Spratlys region in the West Philippine Sea
He said Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua went to him when he learned of plans to repair the runway in Pag-asa.
“He came to me and said, ‘No,’” Lonrenzana said, adding that the envoy tried to deceive him and keep him from visiting the island. When he did so anyway, he was accused of blocking the agreement between the Philippines and China “to properly deal with the South China Sea issue.”
Lorenzana’s revelation about plans to send a small force to the disputed islands came a day after members of the Chinese coast guard prevented a GMA-7 news team from filming and interviewing Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal.
It also follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the two countries on joint oil and gas development in the disputed waters.
A Duterte ally, Senator Aquilino Pimentel, said the President’s decision not to send an armed force immediately after the arbitral decision was a judgment call that was understandable.
Since the country had just won the arbitration case, a military deployment to the area being contested might add fuel to the fire, Pimentel said.
He said "it was understandable for Duterte to show 'magnanimity in victory.' For me, it was a good call. Otherwise, tensions might have escalated to beyond a controllable point,” Pimentel said.
On the Chinese action to bar Philippine reporting on Panatag Shoal, Senator JV Ejercito said he has long been against the bullying by China.
Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a staunch critic of the President said that was clearly an act of aggression.
“Yes, the DFA must file a diplomatic protest about the matter,” he also said.
Senators Joel Villanueva and Francis Pangilinan agreed, saying the government should file a protest.
Pangilinan said the Philippine government should not simply be as meek as a lamb in the face of these assaults on the country’s sovereignty.
In the House, Akbayan party-list Rep. Tom Villarin said Lorenzana should have insisted on deploying the country’s naval forces to Scarborough Shoal as this is part of the Armed Forces” constitutional mandate of defending our territory and sovereignty.
“The President’s directive not to offend China doesn’t mean we don’t patrol our own seas and maritime borders. The UN Arbitral ruling was a significant legal victory and not an empty victory. Secretary Lorenzana should know better than kowtow to the wishes then of President Duterte,” Villarin said.
Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Carlos Zarate said he finds it “gravely ironic that the Defense Department can be passive and meek in the face of evident violations of the country’s sovereignty by foreign troops in pursuit of the so-called soft landing approach.
“Yet, the same department acts like a rabid dog in opposing the GRP-NDFP peace process and in running after our poor countrymen defending and asserting their rights,” he said, referring to the talks between the government and communist rebels.
He said the Philippines has only emboldened China to become more aggressive in expanding its occupation of the West Philippine Sea
Also on Friday, acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said the code of conduct for the South China Sea being hammered out by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China must cover the fishing grounds of Scarborough Shoal, the Paracel islands and the Spratlys, because Beijing wants them excluded.
The code must also be legally binding, Carpio added.
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