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Roque: We’re not behind our rivals in reef dev’t

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque anwer questions din a press briefing at New Executive Bldg, Malacañang. INQUIRER PHOTO/JOAN BONDOC

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque a–INQUIRER PHOTO/JOAN BONDOC

Malacañang on Tuesday disputed the Inquirer report that the Philippines had been left behind by its rivals in the development of territorial claims in the hotly contested South China Sea.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque disagreed with the report published on Tuesday, which was about the development of islands, reefs or atolls in the Spratly archipelago disputed by the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

The Philippine government deferred development of the country’s claims in the Spratlys in 2014 to give way to arbitration in a case it had brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague challenging China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea, including waters within Philippine territory.

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The court ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, but President Duterte, who came to power shortly before the decision came down, put the country’s victory in the backseat and worked for aid, loans and investments from China instead.

Chinese military bases

China obliged Mr. Duterte, but went ahead and built artificial islands on seven Philippine-claimed reefs in the Spratlys, topped them with runways and military installations, landed military planes on one of them and, most recently, deployed antiship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of the islands.

The Senate and the House of Representatives plan to investigate the missile deployments, and a party-list representative is considering bringing an impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte over his refusal to defend Philippine territory in the South China Sea.

Speaking at his regular press briefing in Malacañang on Tuesday, Roque said the Philippines still had the upper hand in the Spratlys because of its ownership of seven “real islands” in the region.

“If they’ve overtaken us in asserting their rights and sovereignty, I dispute that,” Roque said.

“From the nature of the islands that we occupy, we are the only ones of all the claimants, except for Taiwan, which occupies Itu Aba, that can claim sovereignty over the islands that we own,” he said.

PH claims

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The Philippines occupies nine features in the Spratlys known collectively as the Kalayaan Island Group.

Seven of those features are real islands: Pag-asa (international name: Thitu Island), Likas (West York), Parola (Northeast Cay), Lawak (Nanshan), Kota (Loaita), Patag (Flat) and Panata (Lankiam Cay).

Two of the features are reefs—Rizal (Commodore) and Balagtas (Irving)—and one is a shoal, Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal).

“These are not just high-water marks, these are not just artificial islands. Outside of Taiwan, [which claims] the biggest island, Itu Aba. But ours are real islands,” Roque said.

Itu Aba, known in Taiwan as Taiping Island, is an elliptical coral island classified as “rock” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Taiwan has built a small community on Itu Aba, providing it with an airport, fishermen’s shelter, hospital, communication systems—including internet and cell phone—and weather service.

Vietnam’s outposts in the Spratlys have piers, concrete buildings, electricity, guns and satellite communication systems.

Hanoi offers tours to the outposts to boost its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Malaysia has similar facilities on its islands in the Spratlys and has turned one of them into a luxurious dive resort that doubles as a naval base.

Rural spot

In contrast, Pag-asa Island, the Philippines’ biggest outpost in the Spratlys, remains a rural spot in the middle of the sea. It is inhabited by about a hundred civilians and a small military garrison.

The island has an airstrip, but a Philippine Air Force pilot describes the runway as “challenging.”

But for Roque, even “the mightiest island, the mightiest military base, will never be the subject of sovereignty.”

“Why? Because it’s an artificial island. It is only covered by sovereign rights. Whereas us, we’re the only claimant with seven real islands that can be the subject of sovereignty,” he said.

Roque said China’s buildup in the South China Sea was discussed in Monday’s Cabinet meeting and President Duterte reiterated that he would not be involved in any armed confrontation between China and the United States.

Asked if it was possible to appeal to China to withdraw its missiles from Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban reefs, Roque expressed doubt that it was possible.

“I guess anything is possible. But in the realm of possibilities, do you think China will comply? Let us deal with realities,” he said.

Impeachment complaint

That defeatist attitude has made Magdalo Rep. Gary
Alejano consider bringing another impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte.

“He’s even offering to China the ownership of the West Philippine Sea,” Alejano said, referring to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Alejano, whose first impeachment complaint against Mr. Duterte was dismissed by the justice committee in May last year, said his group was discussing a new complaint, although he acknowledged the futility of such a move because Mr. Duterte’s allies control the House.

Roque said Alejano should go after “those who allowed these artificial islands to be built during the term of the administration of which he was an ally.”

He was referring to the Aquino administration, which brought and won the arbitration case against China.

Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao put the blame for China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea on Mr. Duterte.

“He clearly sacrificed our territorial claim over those islands in return for China’s financial support for his ambitious [infrastructure] projects,” Casilao said.

“He let China bully our [fishermen] and deny them access to fish resources in our own territory. Now they have installed a missile defense system, which makes it even harder to demand China to get off our islands,” he said.

What does military say?

Sen. Leila de Lima issued a statement on Tuesday demanding to know the military’s stand on China’s deployment of weapons on Philippine territory.

“It is time for the [military] to explain to the people its position on China’s move to put Palawan under the threat of missiles launched from the Spratlys,” De Lima said.

“It is time for the [military] to clarify once and for all if it still intends to defend our remaining forces in the West Philippine Sea against China and traitors in our midst,” she said. —With reports from Leila B. Salaverria, Vince F. Nonato and Allan Nawal

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TAGS: China missiles, Maritime Dispute, Philippine Daily Inquirer, South China Sea, Spratly Islands, West Philippine Sea
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