Defense and security officials said Tuesday that China was “in position” and not “in possession” of the West Philippine Sea as President Rodrigo Duterte said in his State of the Nation Address on Monday.
“I think the President did not say that they [the Chinese] are in possession, but that they are in position,” National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said in a press briefing Tuesday.
“They have the positional advantage right now and they have the equipment to enforce their position,” Esperon said, referring to the Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs where China has built artificial islands.
Mischief reef is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone while Fiery Cross is in international waters.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana backed Esperon’s clarification, saying Manila continues to contest Beijing’s sweeping claims in the West Philippine Sea.
“They are in position in the islands, but they are not in possession [of] the West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it,” Lorenzana said.
In his SONA Monday, Duterte said he would assert the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea
but would do so in due time—when China starts to digging for oil.
He said the Philippines should have a share of the resources.
Duterte warned that “not one” of the Marines “will come home alive” if he sent them to drive out Chinese fishermen from the WPS.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Tuesday debunked Duterte’s SONA claim, saying China is not in possession of the West Philippine Sea.
China, Carpio said, was in possession of “seven features in the Spratlys plus Scarborough Shoal” and that it also “seized” Sandy Cay from the Philippines during the Duterte administration.
However, Carpio said, even if taken together, the area of these geologic features and their territorial seas, if any, “is less than 7 percent” of the West Philippine Sea.
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“Foreign naval powers (US, UK, France, Australia, Japan, and Canada) continuously sail and conduct naval drills in the South China Sea, including the WPS, demonstrating that China is not in possession of the WPS,” Carpio said in a statement.
Carpio, a strong advocate of Philippines’ maritime interest in the South China Sea, also pointed out that traditional fishing applies only in the country’s territorial sea and archipelagic waters.
“There is no traditional fishing in the EEZ. This is very clear in the arbitral award of 12 July 2016. Reed Bank is part of the Philippine EEZ. There can be no traditional fishing in Reed Bank,” he said, disputing the position of the President that his verbal deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping made it all right for Chinese fishing vessels to operate within the country’s EEZ.
“Traditional fishing is artisanal fishing using small, simple fishing boats like the wooden boats, with outriggers, of Filipino fishermen. The Chinese steel-hulled trawlers cannot qualify for traditional fishing,” he emphasized.
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The Duterte administration has been criticized for setting aside the July 12, 2016 Arbitral Award, which invalidated China’s nine-dash-line claims over vast portions of the South China Sea.
He has also drawn fire for saying Chinese fishermen could operate in the Philippines’ EEZ on the strength of a verbal agreement between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales said the President’s agreement with Xi was problematic.
“A crucial question is: why was this agreement secret and hidden from the Filipino people for nearly three years?” they said in a joint statement. “The answer can only be that this agreement manifestly contravenes our fundamental law—the Constitution. No Presidential agreement with China or any other country can override the explicit constitutional mandate that the use and enjoyment of our EEZ is reserved...exclusively for Filipino citizens.”
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