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Duterte stops building of fishers' shelters on disputed reef

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the stoppage of the construction of shelters on sandbars off Pag-asa Island. Philstar.com/Efigenio Toledo IV

MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to stop the construction of shelters for Filipino fishermen on sandbars just off the coast of Manila-claimed Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea, the Defense chief said.

Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Wednesday that the president followed the Department of Foreign Affairs' advice that building such shelters would be in violation of an earlier agreement with China to maintain status quo in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

China, however, has been found to be continuously installing military systems on man-made islands built in the Philippine-claimed waters.

"When the issue of our occupation of the sandbar came out, they treated that [construction of shelters] as a new feature which is correct. They are correct in saying that," Lorenzana explained in an ambush interview after the his keynote address at the "ASEAN Leadership Forum amid a New World Order" forum in Makati City.

"They complained that we were building new features," he added.

Lorenzana confirmed that there was a standoff in the waters surrounding the sandbars among Filipinos and Chinese fishing vessels, but clarified this was not military in nature.

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Harassing Filipino fishermen

The defense secretary's statement contrasted with a claim Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano released weeks ago.

Alejano said that Chinese forces sounded their sirens to signify their opposition to the activities of the Philippines' patrolling vessels.

The sandbars are also near Subi Reef, where Beijing built one of its artificial islands in Philippine-claimed maritime space. China has installed military structures and equipment on the man-made island.

"The sandbars lie within 12 nautical miles of both Subi Reef and Pag-asa Island. However, the difference is that Subi Reef was once a low-tide elevation and was only later on reclaimed by China," Alejano said.

As a low-tide elevation, Subi Reef does not have territorial waters and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, a principle supported by the ruling of a United Nations-backed tribunal in 2016.

Philippine-controled Pag-asa Island meanwhile is a high-tide elevation and is the second largest island in the Spratlys.

READ:  Chinese forces harass Filipino ships near Pag-asa, says Alejano

According to Alejano, the sandbars are numbered one to three, with the first one being the farthest from Pag-asa Island.

He said that Chinese maritime militias approached a Philippine vessel nearing sandbar one and sounded their sirens, an indication that Beijing was protesting their presence in the disputed waters.

"The Chinese have apparently employed a new tactic in pressuring or harassing Philippine vessels patrolling the sand bars," said Alejano, a former marine officer, as he warned the government to be wary of China despite its detente with the economic giant.

READ:  Esperon denies Chinese occupation of Sandy Cay

Diplomatic means

Lorenzana said that the defense ministers of the region had recently adopted the principles of possible guidelines for maritime interaction that could help in managing disputes in contested waters during the recent ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting in Clark, Pampanga.

He said this was the contribution of the defense ministers in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea while the nations, among them claimants in the longstanding dispute, were still formulating a Code of Conduct for the West Philippine Sea.

The defense chief also explained that the Philippines continued to recognize the 2016 arbitral ruling which invalidated China's expansive claims in the waters where around $3.4 trillion worth of trade passed in 2016.

Lorenzana, however, stressed that this recognition should be "complemented by enhanced engagements" with China and other parties to the dispute. He said that a "piece of ruling" was not sufficient to address challenges in the maritime domain.

"The PCA ruling contributes to our efforts to uphold a rules-based international order, while the network of strong cooperation among states in collaboration with civil society and the private sector will help ensure the effective implementation of such rules," he said.

He also urged the parties to continue using existing mechanisms such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to prevent the escalation of accidents or any untoward incident because of miscalculation.

READ:  Carpio: China virtually occupying Sandy Cay

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