"Even the Palace’s allies in Congress are distancing themselves from the obsequious defense of Beijing’s interests emanating from the Palace these days."
In his eagerness to please his boss, the President’s spokesman this week put his foot squarely in his mouth when he declared that the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which has been swarmed by hundreds of Chinese ships, was not a part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In doing so, presidential spokesman Harry Roque contradicted both the Defense and the Foreign Affairs departments, which have protested the presence of the ships and demanded that China pull their ships out of Philippine waters.
None of this fazed the Palace mouthpiece, however, who claimed that it was the President’s critics who were making a big deal over the more than 200 Chinese ships swarming the reef, just to make his boss look bad.
“Our enemies are really making a big deal out of it,” he said in Filipino, once again reducing a national security concern into a political fight.
And here again, he was dead wrong.
It was, in fact, the government’s own National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) that raised the alarm over the presence of the Chinese ships, a situation that both Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. found unacceptable.
Roque was also dead wrong about the reef being outside the country’s EEZ,of course, and Lorenzana has said as much.
In the wake of the Palace’s latest statements, the Department of Foreign Affairs said its position on the Julian Felipe Reef remains “unchanged.”
For the record, the reef lies 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, which means it is within the 200 nautical miles of the Philippine baseline, that, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), counts as the country’s EEZ.
Its distance to the nearest coast of China or Hainan Island is 638 nautical miles.
Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, makes the same point, and adds that the Palace statements may be used by China to its advantage.
“If we measure the distance from the Julian Felipe Reef to the nearest point in Palawan, which is Rizal town, that’s 175 nautical miles. So, when he (Roque) said that it’s too far and is already outside the EEZ, that’s incorrect. This can easily be proven by anyone who will measure the distance,” Batongbacal says.
Batongbacal also counters Roque’s statement that the reef is outside the Philippines’ EEZ “because it forms part of the territorial sea of McKennan Reef,” which is held by China, but which is claimed by the Philippines as part of the Kalayaan Island Group.
“The Julian Felipe Reef is part of the Philippines, based on our law, Presidential Decree 1596, which says it’s part of the Kalayaan Island Group. And even if you assume that it’s not part of the Philippines because the territorial sea for Julian Felipe Reef has not yet been defined…, it would still be part of our exclusive economic zone. So, in either case, that’s ours,” he says.
There is no doubt that the President’s critics are using the issue to skewer the administration, as well they should—but the Palace should realize, too, that even its allies in Congress are distancing themselves from the obsequious defense of Beijing’s interests emanating from the Palace these days.