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No need to worry, Palace tells China

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MALACAñANG has assured Beijing of Manila’s commitment to enhance bilateral ties after the latter raised concern over President Rodrigo Duterte’s order for the military to “occupy” islands in the South China Sea.

“The President’s position on the matter is clear and has nothing to do with politics. His instructions cover only existing Philippine facilities and Philippine territory,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Saturday.

Abella highlighted the importance of protecting national security even as the Philippines assured China of Manila’s commitment.

“The Philippines assures all claimant countries that we remain committed to improving and enhancing our relations with our neighbors and partners in the region,” he said.

Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella

“At the same time, it is important the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in Philippine territory be assured,” he added.

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China earlier expressed concern over Duterte’s remarks ordering Filipino troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals in the West Philippine Sea, asking the Philippines to continue to maintain “sound and steady growth of China-Philippines.

In a daily press conference in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said China would remain committed to defending its “territorial sovereignty and maritime interests” in the disputed sea.

“Having noted the report, the Chinese side is concerned about it,” Hua told a news conference where the transcript was posted in its official website.

China has been claiming 90 percent or almost the whole part of the South China Sea, citing its excessive nine-dash line of its so-called “Chinese Ancient map.”

Hua’s concern followed Duterte’s order on Thursday to the military to “put structures and the Philippine flag” on its islands and reefs, and to repair the runway on Pag-asa or Thitu Island, the second largest of the Spratly island chain with an area of about 91 acres.

“What’s ours now, at least let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he said, shortly after receiving a security briefing at Puerto Princesa City in Palawan.

Duterte also told the military to make its presence felt there to ensure the safety of Filipino fishermen and residents of Pag-asa Island.

The country has occupied or built structures, and raised the flag over the islands of Pag-asa, Lawak, Patag, Likas, Parola, Panata, and Kota. 

The military has also occupied, controlled, and raised the flag over Rizal Reef and Ayungin Shoal. Some of these were permanently occupied as early as 1970 (Lawak Island); the latest (Ayungin Shoal) in 1995.

Hua then called on the Philippines to continue to properly manage the dispute with China.

“China remains committed to defending its territorial sovereignty and maritime fights and interests in the South China Sea, and safeguarding peace and stability there,” Hua said.

“We hope the Philippine side will continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China and work with us to maintain the sound and steady growth of China-Philippines relations,” she added.

She claimed the situation in the disputed sea “is getting better.”

“This has not come easily and deserves to be cherished and preserved by all parties,” she said.

In a statement, the DFA spokesman Charles Jose, on the other hand, maintained that President Duterte was only performing his mandate to protect the country’s territory.

Jose explained that Duterte’s goal was to improve the life of fishermen and the safety of the people in Palawan near Kalayaan Island.

“The President is performing his mandate with respect to Philippine territory,” Jose said.

“The aim is to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in those areas,” he added.

He also gave assurances that while securing the country’s territory, the Philippines would remain committed to improving its relations with China.

“At the same time, we remain committed to improving our relations with China and other partners in the region,” Jose said.

Shortly after Duterte’s pronouncements, a Washington-based think tank reported that a Chinese fighter plane was spotted in the area.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which is part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the J-11 fighter was visible in a satellite image taken on March 29 of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain.

“This isn’t a first, but it’s the first time in a year,” AMTI director Greg Poling said of the jet sighting.

Referring to the single fighter plane visible in the image, he said: “There are likely more in the hangars nearby.”

Poling said it was unclear how long the plane had been there, but added that similar deployments on artificial islands China has built farther south in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago could be expected now that military facilities had been completed there.

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