Carpio said the Philippine government should file a protest to avoid the misunderstanding that it approves of China’s action at the Philippine-claimed reef and thus weaken the country’s claim over the disputed area.
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Antonio Carpio: ‘Philippines should protest China’s building at Kagitingan Reef’
Evelyn Macairan, Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2019 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and Malacañang differed yesterday on how the Philippines should deal with China’s establishment of a maritime rescue center at the Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef. 

In a statement, Carpio said the Philippine government should file a protest to avoid the misunderstanding that it approves of China’s action at the Philippine-claimed reef and thus weaken the country’s claim over the disputed area.

For his part, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Filipinos should be “thankful” to China for building the center even as it vowed to oppose acts that intrude into Manila’s sovereignty. 

“We should protest because Fiery Cross Reef is part of the geologic features we claim in the Kalayaan Island Group. If we do not protest, then we impliedly consent to China’s act of putting up a maritime rescue center there,” Carpio said.

“This means we are recognizing that China has a right to occupy and use Fiery Cross Reef. Occupation and use are acts of sovereignty. This contradicts our claim that we have sovereignty over Fiery Cross Reef,” he added.

According to a report from the China state-run Xinhua, China’s Ministry of Transportation opened the center to support rescue operations in the contested area.

Kagitingan, which China calls Yongshu, is one of the Philippine-claimed reefs within the Spratlys that China transformed into an island in 2014. China has transformed it into a fortified airbase with military installations. 

Carpio explained that putting up a maritime rescue center is an “act of administration.”

“If we do not protest such Chinese action, then we are impliedly agreeing that China can exercise, and in fact exercises, acts of administration over Fiery Cross Reef,” the SC justice said.

“An act of administration is an essential element in acquiring sovereignty. So, if we impliedly or expressly agree to such act of administration by China, we are helping China strengthen their sovereignty claim to Fiery Cross Reef to our own prejudice,” Carpio said.

Nothing  to worry about?

Asked to react to the report, Panelo said the center could help troubled seafarers in the West Philippine Sea. 

“Maybe we should be thankful. I share the sentiment of (Defense) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana that ‘that could help seamen in distress in that area.’ It can help everybody,” Panelo said at a press briefing.  

“It’s a distress center, that means, it can help those who need help in that region,” he added. 

Panelo claimed the opening of the center would not affect the Philippines’ maritime claims.

“I don’t think so… But perhaps we will leave it to the (Department of Foreign Affairs) secretary. We will not be preempting. Always. (President Duterte’s) style is, we’ll leave it to the departments. We are friends to all, enemies to none – that’s the policy,” Panelo said. 

When asked how the development would affect China’s sincerity in pursuing a code of conduct for South China Sea claimants, Panelo replied: “Personally, I don’t think establishing a distress center is bad.”

“They are establishing it, but they didn’t say that they asked permission from the government. I will wait for Secretary Locsin to say something on the matter,” he added. 

Benefit of the doubt

When reminded about China’s previous actions at Panganiban (Mischief) Reef also in the West Philippine Sea, Panelo said the public should not jump to conclusions on the issue.

In the mid-’90s, China said it would only build shelters for fishermen in Panganiban Reef, which is about 70 nautical miles from Palawan. The reef has been transformed into a military garrison equipped with advanced radars and other monitoring equipment.

“This is also the country that promised us then that they will allow our fishermen and not stop them from fishing in their territory or what they claimed to be their territory – and they did,” Panelo said, referring to China’s decision to allow Filipino fishermen to enter Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales. 

But Panelo assured the public the Philippines would protest “anything that intrudes into our sovereignty.”

“As long as it is inconsistent with what they said, we will certainly take action,” he said, adding that such action includes filing diplomatic protests. 

Panelo later clarified that the Philippines should be thankful to China if the maritime center would not be in conflict with its sovereignty and if it would really assist troubled seafarers. 

“If you’re taking us for a ride and you just use that as an avenue, then we would have a problem,” he said. 

“If that has been validated, then (foreign affairs) Secretary (Teddy) Locsin (Jr.) will make his position on the matter, we will leave it to him first. For now, it is not yet validated.” 

Duterte has been accused of abandoning the Philippines’ maritime claims in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for Chinese aid but the President has denied this. 

ANTONIO CARPIO FIERY CROSS
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