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Occupy Spratly isles? Too late

Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano files a supplemental impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte at the Office of the Secretary General, House of Representatives, Quezon City.  INQUIRER PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

INQUIRER PHOTO / NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

Mr. President, you’re 40 years too late.

Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano on Friday ridiculed President Rodrigo Duterte’s vow to deploy troops to unoccupied South China Sea islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines, saying nothing was left to grab in those disputed waters.

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“There are no more islands in South China Sea to occupy unless we grab islands from Vietnam and China and run the risk of a shooting war,” said Alejano, who filed last month an impeachment complaint accusing the President of dereliction of duty in refusing to assert the country’s sovereign rights over Benham Rise and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

“It seems that the President is unaware of the issues in the West Philippine Sea,” he said in a statement. “The President is 40 years late in his appreciation since scrambling for islands to occupy by claimant countries happened in [the] 1970s.”

Even assuming there were still uninhabited islands to occupy, he said, new occupation would constitute a violation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea, a pact signed by the Philippines but not by China.

On Thursday, Mr. Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to deploy troops to unoccupied islands in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines.

He said he intended to plant a Philippine flag on Pagasa Island, the second-largest island in the Kalayaan group in the Spratlys region occupied by the Philippines.

Military chief Gen. Eduardo Año on Friday said he would follow Mr. Duterte’s order, stressing that a UN-backed arbitral tribunal had already ruled last year in favor of Manila’s South China Sea claims.

“That’s an order from the President and I intend to carry that out. Those features (in the Spratlys island chain) are ours as per [the] arbitration ruling, so we don’t see any problem,” Año said. “We will reinforce our troops and improve the structures and facilities there.”

Año declined to identify features or rocks claimed by the Philippines in the Spratlys that had not been occupied by the AFP. But he said the military would have to set up structures on these features.

Alejano said Mr. Duterte’s rhetoric, which he made during a visit to a military base in Palawan, was a clear indication that his camp recognized the “gravity” of the impeachment complaint filed by the Magdalo lawmaker.

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The lawmaker had earlier alleged that the President betrayed the public trust and violated the 1987 Constitution by refusing to call China out on its incursions in the Philippines, including Benham Rise, an underwater landmass declared by the United Nations in 2012 to be part of the country’s continental shelf.

Inaction, dereliction

He also took Mr. Duterte to task for public statements indicating “inaction” and dereliction of his duty to assert the country’s sovereign and maritime rights, and territorial claims over Benham Rise, Panatag Shoal and the rest of the West Philippine Sea.

“The last time we heard the President speaking of raising the Philippine flag in a disputed territory, he later on admitted that he was merely joking. Let us try to be more critical on the pronouncements of the President and hold him accountable for it,” Alejano said, noting Mr. Duterte’s “contradictory and conflicting” pronouncements.

Out of around 52 islands and reefs in the Spratlys, the Philippines controls eight islands and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.

The potentially mineral-rich Spratlys chain is claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.  In the 1990s, the military grounded an obsolete World War II-era transport ship on Ayungin Shoal, to serve as a sign of Manila’s claim.

Pagasa, at 37 hectares, is the biggest island controlled by the Philippines in the Spratlys and is just 34 hours away by boat from the town of Rizal in Palawan province.

The Department of National Defense said it was planning to improve its facilities already in place in the area, to include a barracks, water desalination systems, power generators, lighthouses and shelters for fishermen.

“The President recently announced plans to improve, and implement the Pagasa development plan, which included nine areas,” presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.

“This is part of his mandate to serve the best interests of the nation,” he added.

Chinese jet sighted

China’s foreign ministry on Friday expressed concern over  Mr. Duterte’s statement, saying it hoped that the Philippines would continue to properly manage maritime disputes there.

Both sides are to meet in May to discuss a bilateral mechanism to handle disputes over their respective claims.

Mr. Duterte’s statement also came on the same day that an American think tank said a Chinese fighter jet had been spotted on a Chinese-held island in the disputed territory.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) identified the aircraft as a J-11 fighter jet and was visible in a satellite image taken on March 29 of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain.

News of the sighting came as US President Donald Trump was in Florida for meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Friday at which he was expected to air US concerns about China’s pursuit of territory and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.

Amti said it was unclear how long the plane had been there, but added that similar deployments on artificial islands China had built further south in the South China Sea’s Spratly archipelago could be expected now that military facilities had been completed there. —WITH REPORTS FROM LEILA B. SALAVERRIA, REUTERS, AP AND AFP

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TAGS: Gary Alejano, Maritime Dispute, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, Spratly Islands, West Philippine Sea
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