CHINA’S island building spree in the disputed waters of the South China Sea should be blamed on the Aquino administration, former Justice secretary Estelito Mendoza said at a media briefing in the House of Representatives Thursday.
At the same briefing to launch Mendoza’s primer entitled “The Ocean Space of the Maritime Area of the Philippines” published by the UP Law Center, former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo said China’s move to build more islands in the disputed waters did not take place under her watch.
Mendoza said the filing of a case before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal by the Aquino administration provoked China to build more islands in the disputed territory.
“During her [Arroyo’s] term there was peace and quiet in the South China Sea. One principal point is that there was no such island building factories as we experienced during the Aquino administration in the South China Sea,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said those created tension when China started converting features part of the Kalayaan Group into veritable islands.
“They became aircraft carriers in the South China Sea and as explicitly stated by China, the building of those island factories were provoked by the filing of the Philippines arbitral claim,” Mendoza said.
Arroyo, for her part, declined to give any unsolicited advice to President Rodrigo Duterte on how to deal with China.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Arroyo told reporters.
But Arroyo said she made general recommendations during a recent National Security Council meeting in Malacañang.
“Our strategic direction is to emphasize our economic relations [with China] and transcend matters and issues between us,” Arroyo said.
Mendoza also credited the Arroyo administration for the enactment of Republic Act 9522, which defines the baselines of the Philippine archipelago, a law that was upheld by the Supreme Court. He even noted that the Supreme Court’s decision was written by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.
“Without the definition of these baselines, the law of the sea convention which recognizes the archipelagic principle may not be implemented by the Philippines either to claim its sovereign rights over maritime areas or to protect them against infringement of other countries, particularly the territorial seas and the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone [EEZ],” Mendoza said.
Mendoza recalled that China opposed the inclusion of Kalayaan and Scarborough Shoal but did not oppose the baselines law as a whole.
Former national security adviser Eduardo Ermita said the signing of the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), a “pre-exploratory” activity signed by the Philippines, China and Vietnam prevented any conflict among claimant countries at the time.
On Thursday, Armed Forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año ordered Gen. Raul del Rosario, commander of the Western Command based in Palawan, to validate new reports that Chinese ships were stalking Filipino fishermen in Union Banks, some 124 nautical miles off the Philippine coast.
News reports said a Chinese coast guard ship circled Filipino fishermen near Union Reef off Mariveles, Bataan and even fired warning shots.
Military officials were cautious about commenting on the report until they could verify it.
“We are still validating that story. We also heard that but it’s hard to give an official statement without first getting facts and verifying the alleged incident,” Año said.
“So, we have to coordinate with our Coast Guard because normally they are the one in charge on the matter while any military response would be a last recourse,” Año said.
Union Banks is a large underwater atoll in the center of the Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said that they will raise the matter through bilateral consultation.
“We are currently verifying this report with our security agencies,” Bolivar said.
He said that with the “positive momentum” that Philippines has with China, Manila will deal the matter through consultation.