President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday told Philippine ships in the West Philippine Sea not to leave the waterway despite the risk of damaging the country’s present relationship with China.
“This will really be a test: I read China said we (Philippine ships) should leave. I now say (to PH vessels): Do not leave. Period. Regardless of whether America will help us or not. Let us stop pinning our hopes on America. They will not help us. A nuclear war – you think America will intervene?” Duterte said in his televised weekly address.
The President said he did not want to contend with China over the WPS, but reiterated the Philippines maintains its claim of sovereignty over the islands and the waters within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“Stating it for the record: We do not want war with China. China is a good friend. Marami tayong utang na loob, pati bakuna natin (we owe them a debt of gratitude, including our vaccines against COVID-19),” Duterte said.
“Nobody in the United Nations will go to war for us. For China, the issue is finished – there is a decision, and they do not want to follow the decision. As for us, we have the (favorable) decision but we are at a loss as to how to get back physically the West Philippine Sea. That is the problem,” the President said.
“Remember when I assumed office, South China Sea is already with China because we retreated. We did not take action. And who was the President then? Now, if you dare me to take action, let’s see. Let’s see. We have ships there. I will tell China, ‘We do not want trouble. We do not want war. But do not tell us to leave.’”
“What will happen if this escalates and becomes a war? For sure, I will send (former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio) Carpio and (former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert) Del Rosario. They started this, they should go there first,” Duterte said.
He said there was no better pressure on China than the arbitral ruling in 2016, when the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) formally ruled that the communist country’s nine-dash line, which overlaps with the Philippine EEZ and covers nearly 80 percent of the South China Sea, is illegal.
But Duterte blasted Del Rosario Carpio for moves that the President said forced the country to cede territory in the disputed waterway before his administration took over.
He asked them why the previous administration did not call in its American allies during the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, when the Philippine Navy tried to arrest eight Chinese fishing vessels but were blocked by two marine surveillance ships from China.
Duterte told Del Rosario: “Ikaw nagsabi sa Navy umatras kayo, because of the Americans. Or were you afraid, nawalan ka ng bayag diyan? (You told the Navy to pull back… did you lose courage?)”
The President claimed that when he came into office, “Talo na tayo” (we lost) to China in the waterway. “Ang China kumasa na talaga (China was armed). China has already done extensive work to show it is theirs. That is why I have a choice of going to war. We will all die because we do not have arms. I will not send my soldiers to hell.”
He also doubted if the United States would have come to the Philippines’ aid then to drive away the Chinese ships -- and even now when hundreds of them have anchored across the islands and shoals in the WPS, backed by China’s naval militia.
He also dared Carpio and Del Rosario, who have formed a political party ahead of the national elections next year, to swim near the Spratly islands to prove their point.
This developed as current Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. ordered a fresh diplomatic protest against China, a day after the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded that Manila halt its maritime drills in the West Philippine Sea.
“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague,” Locsin said on Twitter, referring to the 2016 decision by a UN arbitral tribunal that ruled in the Philippines’ favor against China.
In a separate tweet, Locsin added that “mutual swarming” of vessels in the area increased the likelihood of a “mis-encounter” that could trigger the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.
“Brinkmanship brings clarity. And fortitude,” he said.
Over the weekend, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) deployed eight capital ships to conduct maritime exercises in the West Philippine Sea as part of efforts to secure its maritime jurisdiction in the area.
Following this, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday recited its claims that it “enjoys sovereignty” over the disputed waters and said Manila must “respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”
But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said China has no legal basis to prevent the Philippines from conducting maritime drills in the West Philippine Sea.
“They have no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises within the WPS. That is ours,” he said.
Under the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the sovereignty of a state only extends over its so-called territorial sea, which is 12 nautical miles from its baseline.
In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) formally ruled that China’s nine-dash line, which overlaps with Philippine exclusive economic zones and covers nearly 80 percent of the South China Sea, is illegal.
Since April 5, the Philippine government has been actively protesting China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea, particularly in Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef where a swarm of more than 200 Chinese vessels was spotted in March 2021.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., meanwhile, said the Philippines will build structures in the West Philippine Sea to assert territorial rights in the disputed area.
He also said nine more Chinese militia vessels remained in the Juliana Felipe reef.
In an interview over CNN Philippines, Esperon said the government will build structures within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and within the Kalayaan group or the Kalayaan municipality, giving priority to areas that it already holds, such as the Pag-Asa group of islands.
“I would certainly recommend that we construct first in the islands that we now hold,” Esperon said, adding “this would be essential to strengthen the country’s position in the West Philippine Sea.”
“Right now, we are maintaining our detachments and have constructed living barracks with desalination machines and solar electricity.
Pag-asa Island, our main island which has an airstrip, has its own internet provided by a private company,” he said.
The government will also continue to develop the nine detachments in islands controlled by the Philippines, he said.
Esperon said only nine Chinese vessels remain in the Julian Felipe reef, down from 190 in March, but that the government would continue to file diplomatic protests until all foreign vessels within the EEZ leave.
Despite President Duterte’s earlier declarations, Esperon said there was no verbal agreement between the Philippine leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping on fishing activities.
The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said Wednesday that five Chinese coast guard vessels remain in the country’s territorial waters.
The latest patrols from April 15 to 22 showed that three Chinese vessels were inside Bajo de Masinloc, a shoal off Zambales, the NTF-WPS said in a statement.
The task force also confirmed, “the continued illegal presence” of two Chinese vessels in the waters of Kalayaan in Palawan and Ayungin Shoal, respectively.
“These incursions are under review for the possible filing of appropriate diplomatic actions,” the NTF-WPS said.
“We remind all stakeholders in the region of their respective commitments made in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and underscore the importance of diplomacy and sincere discussion in exploring areas of cooperation especially on marine environmental protection in the area, lest we risk denying present and future generations the right to a healthy and sustainable environment,” the task force added.
Senators on Wednesday rejected Chinese calls to halt maritime drills in the West Philippine Sea.
"It is China who should refrain from escalating tensions and leave the West Philippine Sea,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto.
Senator Joel Villanueva said the Philippine patrols involved a few civilian ships, fewer than 10, and not an armed floating militia numbering hundreds of vessels.
“It is a peaceful exercise of our rights. It is to check on our fishing grounds. “It is not an advance party of a reclamation expedition. Our ships are going there in peace,” Villanueva said.
Senator Panfilo Lacson suggested that the country review its policy with respect to diplomatic relations with China, calling its latest actions “the ultimate insult to our national dignity.”
Senator Francis Pangilinan said China stands isolated from the rest of the international community and should end its “blatant and shameless” disregard of international law.
Senator Nancy Binay said while the Philippines will always be committed to working for a peaceful solution, it cannot allow any country to diminish its sovereignty.
“We are a peace-loving nation and have no hostile intent. Yet we cannot let the bullying continue by remaining scared and silent,” she said.
Senator Richard Gordon said it was time for the Philippines to stand its ground by condemning China’s creeping invasion.
“China has been brazenly seizing, occupying, and claiming Philippine territory with force and intimidation and contrary to international law and agreements. That is the present reality and we cannot say ‘set aside what cannot be resolved during our lifetime.’ We cannot just fold our arms and accept what is now happening in the West Philippine Sea.”
Deputy Speaker and Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus Rodriguez said China had no call to seek a stop to the Philippine maritime exercises.
"That statement is ridiculous. That area is part of our 200-mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Law of the Sea and the ruling of the UN arbitral court. We have every right to patrol it, conduct drills there and explore it for its fishery and other natural resources. But they are the ones taking tons and tons of fishes and destroying the environment there,” Rodriguez said.
“They should leave the WPS. They are the interloper,” he added.
Also on Wednesday, Australia announced it would upgrade military bases in its far north and expand joint drills with US forces after warnings about the “drums of war” beating in the Pacific region.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a plan worth more than half a billion US dollars to revamp four military training facilities in the remote north over the next five years.
The package of upgrades is more extensive and more costly than first conceived two years ago and would allow more joint drills with American forces, including US marines rotating through the northern port of Darwin.
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