China on Tuesday bared a consensus has already been reached with the Philippines to “properly and peacefully handle” issues on maritime disputes in the South China Sea disputes through "dialogue and negotiation."
When asked for comment on Manila’s plan to set up a logistics hub in the West Philippine Sea, Chinese Foreign Ministry Hua Chunying said moves that "stir up trouble" should be stopped.
"Our two countries have reached the consensus to properly and peacefully handle the issue through dialogue and negotiation... We hope certain individuals will refrain from stirring up trouble on this issue," Hua said in her May 10 regular press conference in Beijing.
She, however, did not give details as to when the consensus was reached, the nature of the agreement whether it was verbal or written, and who were involved in the discussions.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Tuesday contradicted Defense and Foreign Affairs officials by insisting that the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef was not even inside the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In an online briefing, Roque questioned why so much fuss was being made about the presence of Chinese ships—at one point more than 200 of them—in the reef, when the area wasn’t even in the country’s EEZ.
Roque said administration critics were making a big deal over the presence of the ships merely to disparage President Duterte’s pivot to China.
“We're making a big thing out of the fact, when that area was never under our possession,” Roque said.
Roque’s pronouncements drew sharp rebuke from Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who issued a “last warning” against those talk as if they are more knowledgeable than the DFA.
“This is my last warning. When it comes to foreign affairs, the Department of Foreign Affairs has the exclusive remit. I don’t come from diplomacy; I come from a life that settled the hash of a lotta people who talked tough and ended up biting dirt. I don’t talk, I deal,” Locsin said in a Twitter post.
Earlier in the day, the Department of Foreign Affairs clarified it has not altered its position on the Julian Felipe Reef issue amid Roque’s pronouncements.
The DFA has lodged almost daily diplomatic protests against China to press for the withdrawal of its militia vessels at the Juliann Felipe Reef, which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group and is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan.
In one of its diplomatic notes, the DFA said the Chinese vessels scattered in in Julian Felipe Reef “blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”
Roque’s remarks also directly contradicted those of the National Task
Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), which first raised the alarm over the Chinese ships.
The Palace official, however, denied he had weakened the country’s position on Julian Felipe Reef.
"It doesn't weaken anything because we aren't giving up our claim to Julian Felipe pursuant to Marcos appending Julian Felipe to the territory of the Philippines," Roque said.
“Julian Felipe Reef was not even included in the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration that we won,” he said. “It is located too far from us. But we are not abandoning our claim.”
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said Roque's statement echoed “the traitorous statements of his true-blue pro-China boss Duterte” but said he expected little else from “Team China in Malacañang."
Instead of using China's 9-dash line map as his main reference, Gaite said Roque should use Google Earth “to educate himself where Julian Felipe Reef is, which is obviously well within the 200 nautical miles from the Philippine's baselines."
He said Roque and Duterte’s recent statements were as good as surrender.
“They really gave up, even though they didn't want to admit it. They no longer have the slightest interest in defending our territory, not even verbally. Even lip-service is really gone,” Gaite said.
“We are probably the laughing stock of our Southeast Asian neighbors. Of all the claimants in the territories in the South China Sea, we are the only ones with a government that does not want to stand up, we are the only one with a government that is too cowardly to stand up for our sovereignty,” Gaite said.
Meanwhile, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said Duterte’s campaign promise to jet ski to the Spratlys to plant a Philippine flag was clearly a joke—but Senator Panfilo Lacson said it was no laughing matter.
"What President Rodrigo Duterte may consider a joke could be no laughing matter for Filipinos especially when it involves key issues like our territory in the West Philippine Sea,” Lacson said.
"His spokesperson would say he is joking, but there are times he seems serious in his statements. We don’t know anymore. We have a very big problem on our hands," Lacson said.
"When he addresses the nation, we don’t know when he is joking or serious. Is it up to us to understand which is which? It's really hard for Filipinos," he added.
"With such confusing statements, including Duterte's claim that only stupid people would believe his jet ski claim, it is time we learn as an electorate and be more discerning of those running in elections -- not only for President but also for other posts, including lawmakers," Lacson said.
Opposition Senator Leila de Lima chided Duterte for fooling the Filipino people by using his deceptive tricks to win the 2016 election, particularly his promise to ride a jet ski to the Spratly Islands.
"Duterte’s recent remark only affirmed what we already know: That he really has no plans to invoke our sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea,” she said.
"Duterte’s campaign in the 2016 elections was waged on pure gimmickry with no solid program of government on which to anchor his outlandish promises. That’s why all we can hear now are his excuses why he cannot execute. And he even has the gall to call those who believe in his campaign promise as stupid. Classic Duterte!”
She said he was a “big joke on the country” that wasn’t funny.
During a televised address last May 10, Duterte said his election promise to ride a jet ski to challenge Chinese incursion in Philippine waters was a “pure joke” and that those believed it were “stupid.”
Former Philippine ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia Jr. on Tuesday insisted that China reneged on its agreement with the Philippines to pull its ships out of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 amid a standoff there.
“The US’ suggestion was for us to withdraw, but I told them I cannot make that recommendation. What I recommended was simultaneous withdrawal [by both the Philippines and China]. The US talked the Chinese ambassador and China agreed [to the simultaneous withdrawal of ships],” Cuisia said, in an interview with radio dzBB.
The former envoy was commenting on the repeated allegations made by President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies that it was the Aquino administration's fault that the Philippines lost control over Scarborough Shoal.
Cuisia stressed that it was the United States that proposed the pullout of Philippine vessels from Scarborough to avoid possible violence. The former ambassador said he proposed that China should do the same.
The agreement was brokered by then-US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, Cuisia said.
“We set a time and date of such withdrawal. On June 15, we withdrew [our ships]. Two hours later, then-Foreign Affairs Secretary [Albert] del Rosario called me saying China did not withdraw as reported by our Philippine Navy. That is the problem. China did not withdraw,” Cuisia said.
Cuisia said he immediately informed the US of China’s refusal to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal, but the US supposedly asked the Philippine side to give China more time.
“I said okay but they should withdraw within the day,” Cuisia said. The Chinese ships never left.
“The next morning, I got a call from Secretary del Rosario again that they haven’t pulled out yet. I brought this to all ASEAN ambassadors, and they can all confirm that China agreed to such an agreement,” he said.
After the Philippine pullout, returning to the shoal was no longer possible because China had 77 vessels there and the Philippines had only eight before the agreement was reached.
Cuisia also pointed out that Duterte should blame China for what happened in 2012 instead of chastising Del Rosario.
“I don't understand why the President keeps blaming Del Rosario. Why can't he blame China for fooling us?” Cuisia said in Filipino.
According to Cuisia, he repeatedly pressed the US to do something about China.
“But of course they also need China’s support in US-Iran nuclear deal.
When China did not conform to the agreement, what else can you do?” he said.
He said the US could have slapped sanctions on China but did nothing.
This incident prompted the Aquino administration to sue China before the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013.
In 2016, the arbitral tribunal ruled and invalidated China's claim of sovereignty in the entire South China Sea under the so-called “nine-dash line” and outlawed China's aggression against Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground.
The same decision also ruled that the Spratly Islands, Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank are within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.
But Duterte has downplayed the legal victory as it has no enforcement mechanism and also because of China has refused to recognize it.
Cuisia said such a statement by the President is a clear betrayal of Filipinos.
“Filipinos should know that this government is not protecting our interest. They are squandering the huge victory that we won,” Cuisia said. “That is a national tragedy.”
In other developments:
* Senator Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday urged the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to lead talks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) regarding the prolonged presence of China’s vessels in the West Philippine Sea. She issued the statement after geo-intelligence firm Simularity reported that over 200 vessels are still in the disputed waters as of May. These vessels are believed to be the same fleet spotted over Julian Felipe Reef in March.
* Lacson said Filipinos, including those in the Armed Forces, were confused about the President’s statements about China. "In the meantime, our fishermen are harassed in our own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). We cannot fish and we’re losing billions and that affects our economy.”