Carpio: Panelo’s remark weakens PH in sea row
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has warned of a serious repercussion on the Philippines’ position unless presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo takes back his statement that China is in “legal possession” of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
“I think this is a very serious matter,” Carpio, who has done an extensive study of the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, said in an interview on television on Thursday.
Carpio said China would harp on Panelo’s statement to claim that the Philippines had abandoned its 2016 victory over China in the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Ruling on the Philippine challenge to China’s claim over nearly all of the South China Sea, the arbitral court said China’s claim had no basis in international law and that it had violated the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore resources in the West Philippine Sea, the country’s 370-kilometer EEZ in the heavily disputed waterway.
The ruling means that even if China occupies or controls Philippine reefs in the West Philippine Sea, it cannot acquire lawful possession of them.
“Assuming China is in possession, which they are not, but assuming they are, that is illegal possession, not legal possession,” Carpio said.
“Now the moment you say that China is in legal possession, you abandon the ruling, you contradict the ruling and you give China ammunition to demolish our [victory],” he added.
Carpio said Panelo, who is also the chief presidential legal counsel, should take back his statement or pass it off as a joke.
“It’s very serious because China will always cite this statement by the chief presidential legal counsel that the Philippines has admitted that [China is] in legal possession and therefore that ruling will not apply anymore,” he said.
Panelo defended his statement, saying he was merely making an “analogy” and that Carpio “was not listening.”
“As far as they (China) are concerned, it’s theirs, it’s theirs. Why can’t we understand that? The President has repeatedly said, ‘According to them, they own it,’” he said.
“As far as they are concerned, legally it’s theirs. For us, as far as we are concerned, it’s also legally ours,” he added.
His and the President’s stance is that China is in “constructive possession” of the West Philippine Sea “because of their military hardwares there,” he said.
In his State of the Nation address to the opening session of the 18th Congress on Monday, Mr. Duterte said that while the West Philippine Sea belonged to the Philippines, “China is in possession” of those waters.
He meant ‘in position’
On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that what the President meant was that China was “in position” in the South China Sea because of its presence on artificial islands it had built and developed into military outposts there.
Panelo countered that there was no contradiction between Mr. Duterte’s “in possession” and the two security officials’ “in position,” and threw in his own “constructive possession” interpretation of China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea.
Carpio, in his television interview on Thursday, said the President or Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. should “disown” Panelo’s statement.
“Otherwise, we will be bound by this statement and China will keep on citing this in the future. Every time we assert the [arbitral] ruling, they will say, ‘Oh, you already admitted we are in legal possession,’” he said.
Carpio, who was part of the legal team that won the arbitral award for the Philippines, thanked Esperon and Lorenzana for correcting the President.
“I’m happy that Secretary Lorenzana and Secretary Esperon have taken the position of clarifying that it is not possession, it’s position, because they understand the consequence,” he said.
He said it was “totally inaccurate, totally wrong” to say that China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea since it is in possession, albeit illegally, only of seven Philippine reefs in the Spratlys and of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Sandy Cay.
He said the total area of these geologic features was less than 7 percent of the West Philippine Sea.
“Just because they occupy it doesn’t mean they own it because we are still disputing it. We are not conceding those features to China. They are disputed, they are territorial disputes,” Carpio stressed.
Lorenzana denied on Thursday that Sandy Cay was occupied by China.
“It is still there. Nobody is occupying it,” he told reporters.
He said Sandy Cay was within sight from Pag-asa, the largest Philippine-occupied island in the Spratly archipelago that the government was considering developing into a tourist destination.
Hotel on Pag-asa
Lorenzana said it was possible to build a hotel on Pag-asa as long as the airstrip on the island was also developed.
“We just want to follow what the Chinese have been doing [on] Subi Reef,” he said, referring to the Philippine-claimed Zamora Reef in the Spratlys that China had seized and developed into a military outpost.
“They have big buildings there. I think we have the right also to put up our facilities so that Filipinos can also go there and visit Pag-asa because it belongs to us,” he said. —REPORTS FROM DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN, JULIE M. AURELIO AND JEANNETTE I. ANDRADE
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