A municipal official and a lawmaker disclosed Monday that they were battling red tape in their effort to build a schoolhouse in Kalayaan Islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as China insisted the Philippines’ territorial claims in those waters were based on an erroneous interpretation of the international law of the sea.
A Chinese national newspaper has called President Aquino “rude” for pressing for the “internationalization” of the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea at the 21st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, last week.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday, Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. urged Malacañang to expedite the release of funds for the construction of a two-classroom school building on Pag-asa Island, the largest in the Kalayaan Group, to solidify the Philippine claim to that part of the Spratlys archipelago.
Rep. Antonio Tinio of Act Teachers was also at the news conference and he said he set aside P4.3 million from his priority development assistance fund (PDAF) to help finance the construction of the proposed Pag-asa Island Elementary School.
The PDAF is a pork barrel that channels funds to congressional districts for project development.
Bito-onon opened a single-classroom elementary school on Pag-asa in June. He built it from materials he had scrounged from the area to give the island its first learning center for children.
But his dream, he said, is a real schoolhouse for the small community on the island. The schoolhouse must be built to specifications laid down by the Department of Education, including at least two classrooms and toilets.
Tinio came to the island’s aid, proposing to finance the construction of a real schoolhouse from his pork barrel allocation.
But the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) is taking too long in approving Tinio’s proposal and releasing the funds.
Bito-onon called on Malacañang to speed up the release of the funds.
“If the project of Congressman Tinio pushes through, it will be a big help for us,”
Bito-onon said. “That will set a landmark for the history of Kalayaan. I’d like to make it a centerpiece program,” he said.
Tinio said the construction of the schoolhouse would be significant amid tensions between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea.
He called on the Palace and the DBM to release the funds immediately so that the construction of the schoolhouse could begin.
“It’s not just a symbolic action, certainly it’s not a military action,” Tinio said. “But by building a [schoolhouse] in Kalayaan, we are showing the world that the government of the Philippines exercises actual, real sovereignty over citizens in the Spratlys,” he added.
Pag-asa is the only inhabited island in the Kalayaan Group, located 684 kilometers west of the southern end of Palawan province.
The island has a population of about 300, 100 of them soldiers.
Bito-onon said there were only seven schoolchildren on the island—six in kindergarten and one in Grade 1.
But more children could be taken to the island to study there once a schoolhouse is built, he said.
At present, he explained, people on the island entrust the education of their children to relatives in other provinces where there are schools.
But once a real schoolhouse opens on Pag-asa, those children can be taken back to study right on the island, he said.
Pag-asa has a 1.3-km airstrip used by both the military and civilians. Bito-onon said the island could be developed into a tourism and fishery hub.
That will surely raise the hackles of China, which warned the Philippines in June not to proceed with the opening of the makeshift schoolhouse on Pag-asa, but was ignored.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao got into an exchange with Southeast Asian leaders during last week’s Asean-China Summit in Phnom Penh over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea and the East Sea.
China got a boost from ally Cambodia, which tried to picture the Asean summit as agreeing not to “internationalize” the disputes, but President Aquino intervened, publicly rebuking Cambodian Premier Hun Sen for the attempt.
Mr. Aquino stated that Asean leaders had no agreement not to “internationalize” the territorial disputes and that the Philippines would press ahead with its search for a resolution of its dispute with China in accordance with international law.
Countering Mr. Aquino’s pronouncements in Phnom Penh, China on Monday said the Philippines’ claim to Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) was based on a “misinterpretation” of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).
In a statement issued Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila cited the China National Institute for South China Sea Studies’ analysis debunking the Philippines’ claim to Panatag Shoal based on the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) provision of Unclos.
The institute reiterated China’s historical ownership of the shoal, known to the Chinese as Huangyan Island.
“Clearly, the Philippines here has misinterpreted and misapplied Unclos on the basis of its own interests, which is contrary to international law and to Unclos,” the statement said.
“It has been an established basic principle of international law that ‘the land dominates the sea.’ Coastal states derive their sovereign rights and jurisdiction over EEZs from their territorial sovereignty. Hence, Unclos cannot serve as a basis for a country to claim sovereignty over China’s Huangyan Island,” the statement said.
China Daily criticized President Aquino for insisting on drawing other countries into discussions of the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea and East Sea, a reference to the United States.
“[I]t was very rude of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to interrupt and rebuke Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, alleging that no such consensus had been reached and he would continue to speak out on the global stage,” the paper said in an editorial, titled “A rude Manila helps no one,” published on Friday.
“Aquino’s undiplomatic move was ill-advised, and will not help solve the issue in peace,” the paper said.
The paper also criticized the Philippines’ for inviting claimants Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam to four-way talks on the disputes in Manila next month.
Responding to the Chinese Embassy statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) insisted the Philippines’ sovereignty over Panatag Shoal was based on the EEZ provision of Unclos.
“The Philippines has sovereignty over [Panatag Shoal] on the basis of effective occupation and effective jurisdiction,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez said.
“Philippine sovereign rights over the EEZ and continental shelf of [the shoal] are government by Unclos,” he said.
Hernandez reiterated the Philippines’ call to China to “respect the territory of maritime domain” of the Philippines.
Echoing a statement by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Hernandez described China’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, an “excessive declaration of maritime space in violation of international law.”