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China concerned over Rody order on SCS

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying raised her country’s concern at a regular press briefing yesterday as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Eduardo Año declared the military’s readiness to carry out Duterte’s order, as well as its plans to upgrade and improve facilities on islands already occupied by the AFP. AP/File

MANILA, Philippines -  China has expressed concern over President Duterte’s directive to the military to occupy nine islands in the Spratlys under the Philippines’ control.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying raised her country’s concern at a regular press briefing yesterday as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Eduardo Año declared the military’s readiness to carry out Duterte’s order, as well as its plans to upgrade and improve facilities on islands already occupied by the AFP.

“We hope the Philippi ne side can continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China and safeguard together the sound and stable situation of China-Philippines relations,” Hua said.

She also aired Beijing’s resolve to “firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty, its maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea, which is rich in resources and hosts vital shipping lanes. 

“That’s an order from the President and I intend to carry that out. As per arbitration ruling that’s ours, so we don’t see any problem,” Año said, referring to a ruling by a UN-backed arbitral tribunal reaffirming the Philippines’ maritime entitlements and invalidating China’s excessive nine-dash line claim.

“Actually, all the seven islands and two shoals are already occupied by our troops,” Año added.

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The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), through spokesman Charles Jose, stressed the Philippines remains committed to improving relations with Beijing and that the President was merely performing his mandate with respect to Philippine territory.

“The aim is to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in those areas,” Jose said.

Duterte’s announcement had appeared to be a sharp departure from his previously cordial overtures to Beijing and non-confrontational approach.

But military officials said they did not think the order required the military to occupy new outcrops. 

“The context with which we take the order is to improve on our already occupied islands, islets and features,” military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said.

“The President’s order was very crystal clear. Occupy only the existing areas that we claim,” a navy commander, privy to development plans in the South China Sea, said.

“The Philippines is not allowed to do that, occupy new territories in the Spratly, based on the 2002 agreement,” said the navy official.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said there were plans to repair and upgrade facilities in the Spratlys.

“The President wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water and sewage disposal systems, power generators, lighthouses and shelters for fishermen,” Lorenzana said.

Another general, who also declined to be named, said there were development plans in the South China Sea in 2012, which included building a secured port on Pag-asa island and helicopter pads in three smaller islands where troops are deployed.

But the plan, which also called for an increase in troop deployment in the occupied islands, was stopped after the Philippines in 2013 filed an arbitration case against China in The Hague.

The Philippines occupies nine “features,” or islands and reefs, in the West Philippine Sea, including a World War II-vintage transport ship which ran aground on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the late 1990s.

The US State Department declined comment on Duterte’s remarks, but has in the past urged rival South China Sea claimants to lower tensions and resolve differences in accordance with international law.

“The President recently announced plans to improve, and implement the Pag-asa development plan which includes nine areas,” Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella said, referring to Pag-asa municipality, the Philippines’ political subdivision for the Spratly islands.

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

All other major outcrops inside the section of the Spratlys claimed by Manila are already occupied by troops from other claimant countries, Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal said yesterday.

Only a few “reefs and shoals” do not currently have soldiers on them, he said, adding that the Philippine government would likely back away from Duterte’s explosive original proposal.

China claims most of the sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities, further raising tensions.

Fully occupied

There are no more disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) for Filipino soldiers to occupy.

Rep. Gary Alejano of party-list group Magdalo, who has filed an impeachment complaint against President Duterte, made this statement yesterday in reaction to Duterte’s order for soldiers to occupy islands in the West Philippine Sea.

“It seems that the President is unaware of the issues in the WPS. The grabbing and occupation of islands happened in the 1970s. The President is 40 years late. There are no more islands to occupy unless we grab islands from Vietnam and China and run the risk of a shooting war,” he said.

“Even if assuming there are still uninhabited islands to occupy, new occupation is a violation of the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea, in which the Philippines is a signatory and is faithfully complying with its provisions even if China is not,” he said.

He said the President “might be referring to the 10 features we already occupied, and in that case his order to occupy is not new.”

“We have Filipino soldiers in all these features, and we have the flag flying there. All the President has to do is to make these islands habitable and sustainable not only for our soldiers but for our fishermen as well,” he added.

He named the 10 features where there is Philippine presence as Pag-asa (Thitu Island, which is 37.2 hectares in area), Likas (West York, 18.6 hectares), Parola (Northeast Cay, 12.7 hectares), Lawak (Nanshan Island, 7.93 hectares), Kota (Laoita Island, 6.45 hectares), Patag (Flat Island, .57 hectares), Panata (Lankiam Cay, .44 hectares), Rizal (Commodor Reef), Balagtas (Irving Reef) and Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal).

Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the occupation of the islands could go hand-in-hand with the efforts of the President to strengthen ties with China, which has been very aggressive in asserting its own claims on the South China Sea.

“Asserting our sovereignty and territorial integrity can take many forms and courses of action. Whatever goodwill and good relations the President has established with China, at the end of the day, our national interest should always take the front seat,” Lacson said.

“All of us who have genuine love for our country must therefore support the President on the course of action that he has chosen to take,” Lacson said.

Senate Majority Leader Vicente Sotto III said that he was aware of the President’s plan to send troops to the islands and said that he fully supports the move.

Senate committee on national defense and security chairman Sen. Gregorio Honasan said that the occupation of the islands, including the planting of the Philippine flag on these territories, is well within the bounds of the Constitution.

He said that there is nothing illegal or immoral with the President visiting any part of the Philippines and taking action to assert the country’s sovereignty.

Honasan said though that this action is merely procedural because there is no doubt that the islands are owned by the Philippines. – Jess Diaz,  Marvin Sy, Helen Flores

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