Three presidential candidates on Thursday said China had no rights in the Ayungin Shoal, after the government rejected a Chinese demand that it remove the grounded BRP Sierra Madre from the area.
A 2016 ruling by a UN tribunal junked China’s expansive claims to the area, which is part of the Philippine exclusive economic zone, said Vice President Leni Robredo, who is running for president.
“Facts are not debatable. This is not subject to opinion because there is a ruling already,” she said in Filipino in an interview with ABS-CBN.
Filipinos, she said, should enjoy exclusive use of the resources there.
Presidential aspirant Senator Panfilo Lacson said he doubted there was any commitment, as China claims, to remove the grounded vessel.
"I don’t think there was an agreement and I couldn’t imagine the Philippine government, much less the Foreign Affairs Department would enter into an agreement to remove the Sierra Madre,” Lacson said.
“We have troops there. It is really ours,” he said.
The Navy ship Sierra Madre was intentionally grounded at the Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to reinforce Manila's sovereignty claims in the Spratly archipelago. Some 195 kilometers away from Palawan, the shoal is home to a small contingent of Marines onboard the rusty ship.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana dismissed China's assertion on Wednesday that the Philippines committed to remove the grounded vessel.
"If there was commitment it would have been removed a long time ago," he said.
Presidential candidate Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso on Thursday insisted that the Ayungin Shoal is part of the country’s maritime territory, as affirmed by the 2016 arbitral ruling rendered by the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“Tell that to the Marines. It’s ours. Our fishermen must fish in the West Philippine Sea. It is ours historically, technically, and the world agrees with us. We own it under the Hague ruling,” Moreno said.
The Aksyon Demokratiko presidential aspirant said given the chance, he would send "all our fishermen" in the West Philippine Sea along with all the resources of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard to protect them.
Moreno also warned that he would do what Indonesian leader Joko Widodo did if warranted.
In 2016, Widodo once held a Cabinet meeting aboard a warship off Natuna Islands, to make a point to China. His former fisheries minister has chased away, even blown up, Chinese fishing vessels.
Under Widodo's watch, Indonesia renamed waters north of Natuna Islands the North Natuna Sea, angering China. Indonesia then put up a new military base on the islands and has ramped up regular patrols in the area.
“The sauce for the gander, is sauce for the goose. All ships owned by other countries entering our sovereign jurisdiction will be apprehended. And those ships who went inside illegally within our territorial jurisdiction, I’ll turn the bottom of the sea into an aquarium with their sunken ships,” Moreno said.
Moreno bemoaned the inaction of members of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – even though the court is mandated only to investigate and, where warranted, try individuals charged with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression, and is not involved in territorial disputes.
Senator Francis Pangilinan, who is running for vice president, said the Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea should be defended as it is vital to the country’s food security.
Pangilinan said he has already filed a resolution in the Senate seeking an investigation into the possible implication of China’s persistent harassment to the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.
“This is a matter of food security because the West Philippine Sea is a rich, rich source of fish. In fact, the fishes we are importing from China came from there,” Pangilinan said.