Solons urge protest over PH reef incident
An opposition lawmaker warned on Wednesday that it was only a matter of time before China deployed warplanes on its artificial islands in Philippine waters, after the Inquirer published surveillance photos showing Chinese military transport planes on Panganiban Reef.
Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano, together with Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate and Sen. Francis Pangilinan, called on the Duterte administration to file a diplomatic protest with China.
Asked about the Inquirer photographs after he spoke to foreign correspondents on Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano refused to say whether the Philippines would raise the matter with China.
Cayetano gave assurance, however, that the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was “taking all diplomatic actions necessary to protect our claim and to communicate to them our desire to return features [in the sea] to their original state.”
But he did not say what his department would do about the landings on Panganiban, reiterating his stance that actions taken by the DFA on the South China Sea dispute should be kept from the public.
“The Chinese did not reclaim Mischief Reef for nothing. The construction of a military grade airstrip there is not for display only,” Alejano said, referring to Panganiban Reef by its international name.
The reef is located 232 kilometers west of Palawan, well within the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea locally known as West Philippine Sea.
Besides Panganiban, China has also transformed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs—all claimed by the Philippines—into artificial islands with communications and surveillance capabilities.
China has also topped Kagitingan and Zamora reefs with runways capable of receiving military planes.
“It is [only] a matter of time before the Chinese deploy their fighter aircraft [on] their reclaimed islands as part of their strategic objective of controlling [the South China Sea],” Alejano, a former Marine captain, said in a statement.
Chinese military aircraft
Alejano called on President Rodrigo Duterte to file a diplomatic protest against China after seeing aerial images in the Inquirer of two Xian Y-7 transport planes on Panganiban Reef, the first reported presence of Chinese military aircraft in the area.
“We should not be deceived by China’s pronouncements that it will not militarize [the South China Sea]. Therefore, the [Philippines] must continuously and persistently call out such move that destabilizes the region,” Alejano said.
“I am hoping that Duterte will file a diplomatic protest this time around unlike before [when] government officials were reduced to spokespersons [for] China by justifying Chinese aggressive actions in [South China Sea],” he added.
Zarate, in a separate statement, condemned China’s “continued militarization of the West Philippine Sea.”
“China is obviously flexing its military muscle and endangering the fragile peace in the West Philippine Sea. This is highly condemnable and the Philippines should protest this provocative Chinese action,” Zarate said.
“Also this move of China is a clear violation of the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and is a way of asserting its contempt of the court as well as its dominance in the area,” he said.
Zarate was referring to the arbitral court’s July 2016 ruling that invalidated China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea and recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to fish and explore for resources in its own EEZ.
But President Duterte has shelved that ruling, preferring to improve relations with China and courting it for aid and investments.
“The Duterte administration should be taken to task for not doing anything on this blatant violation of our sovereignty. The Philippine government should not take this sitting down,” Zarate said.
“We are calling on the Filipino people here and abroad to protest this newest affront of China to our sovereignty,” he added.
Senator Pangilinan said the government should protest China’s “illegal occupation” of Panganiban Reef and that the military should state what it intended to do to deal with China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
In a text message to the Inquirer, Pangilinan said he shared the concern of former National Security Adviser Jose Almonte, who had warned the Duterte administration against too much cozying up to China.
“It would be foolish to expect any other nation to uphold our sovereignty and our interests as a nation,” Panganiban said.
Security expert Francisco Ashley Acedillo said the Duterte administration should have issued “a sternly worded” response to emphasize that Panganiban Reef is within Philippine territory.
“The latest movement of Chinese military aircraft in these illegally constructed islands in a clearly disputed area merely confirms what China has peddled as a lie all along—that these islands are for civilian use and that they do not intend to militarize these disputed areas,” Acedillo said. —With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan, Christine O. Avendaño and Nikko Dizon
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