‘Duterte won’t change South China Sea policy’

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, on Monday, June 25, said there is no way President Rodrigo Duterte will change his policy on the West Philippine Sea or apologize for it. He also blamed the previous Aquino administration for triggering the militarization of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

“When we had a confrontation with the Chinese, they drove us away from Panatag. Let’s not forget it was [former] President Aquino who militarized it. He sent the Navy so the Chinese never left,” Roque said at a press briefing in Cagayan de Oro City, alluding to the standoff at Panatag Shoal in 2012.

Panatag Shoal is an integral part of Philippine territory. It is 124 nautical miles from the nearest basepoint in Zambales province and is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf.

On April 8, 2012, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a Navy ship, spotted eight Chinese fishing boats poaching in Philippine waters and was about to apprehend them when Chinese surveillance vessels stopped them.

Ultimately, the standoff ended with China taking control of the shoal and preventing Filipinos from fishing in the area.

Roque’s statement was also in response to acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio rebuking Duterte for insisting that asserting the Philippines’ sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea would only cause a rift.

Duterte’s stance regarding the issue in which he refuses to challenge China’s aggressive moves in the West Philippine Sea has long been criticized. The president has repeatedly expressed his aversion to antagonizing a powerful China in his speeches. According to him, confronting China militarily would surely result in a massacre of Filipino soldiers.

Meanwhile, Carpio insisted that Filipinos asserting the country’s territorial rights have never called for a war with China.

In a speech before graduating students of the University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance last Friday, June 22, Carpio cited the need to “resist any and all attempts to weaken the nation” in defending its national territory and maritime zones.

“The president would not apologize for that (policy). If we use violence just like what president Aquino did, which led to the occupation by the Chinese of the Panatag… a military conflict would ensue and that is what we are trying to avoid,” Roque said.

About 90 percent of the South China Sea is claimed by China while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims.

An international arbitral tribunal voided China’s claim in 2016 but the Chinese government has refused to recognize the ruling. The decision was stemmed from a complaint filed by the Aquino administration contesting China’s “excessive” and “exaggerated” claim.

According to Roque, Duterte’s policy has led to bilateral cooperation with China, which is now providing military and development aid to the Philippines.

He also insisted that that international law does not bar Chinese aircraft from landing in the Philippines.

“All aircraft, provided that they asked for a permit, are allowed to refuel. I do not know of any prohibitions in the International Law that bars Chinese planes from using airports if they are allowed by the host country,” he said.

A Chinese plane landed in Davao City last Saturday, June 23, to refuel, but officials claimed all local protocols were observed. The landing happened two weeks after a Chinese military aircraft landed in the city.

A party-list lawmaker said Duterte should tell the public if his administration has special arrangements with China regarding the refueling of its aircraft.

“Why do Chinese military aircraft refuel in President Duterte’s hometown in Davao City amid the West Philippine Sea dispute and lack of any military agreement with China?” Anakpawis party-list Rep. Ariel Casilao asked.

According to Casilao, “Davao City is becoming a logistical hub for China.”

He persuaded the people to “actively protest the transforming of the country as Chinese military base in the region” and press Duterte “to disclose his arrangements and concessions with the foreign superpower.” 

Ritchel Mendiola

Ritchel Mendiola is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at ritchel.mendiola@asianjournalinc.com.

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