Palace: Philippines can 'set aside' South China Sea issues for infra, trade
Aerial photos aired by China Central Television in 2018 show the completed construction of facilities on Fiery Cross Reef, one of Beijing's artificial islands in the Spratly Islands.
CCTV via Asia Times, file

Palace: Philippines can 'set aside' South China Sea issues for infra, trade

Alexis Romero (Philstar.com) - September 2, 2020 - 4:47pm

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines can "set aside" unresolved issues in the South China Sea — part of which Manila claims and calls the West Philippine Sea — and pursue investment projects with Chinese firms since the arbitral ruling has already upheld Manila's sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Malacañang said Wednesday.

While the Philippines is a party to the South China Sea row, President Rodrigo Duterte has refused to follow the United States' (US) lead in banning trade with Chinese companies that helped build artificial islands in disputed waters, citing the need to finish its infrastructure projects.

One of the companies that were blacklisted by the US is state-run China Communication Construction Co. Ltd. (CCCC), which will handle the development of Sangley Airport in Cavite, a facility close to key Philippine naval and air bases. The P208-billion project seeks to ease the airport congestion in Metro Manila.

Despite concerns about the involvement of Chinese firms in vital projects, Malacañang said that national interest requires that flagship infrastructure projects be completed.

"He (Duterte) said that we will pursue the national interest and the national interest dictates that we finish the flagship projects of the 'Build, Build, Build' and therefore he will not follow the footsteps of the Americans. He will respect the contracts that we have entered into with Chinese companies," presidential spokesman Harry Roque told CNN Philippines.

Asked whether banning business with Chinese firms would send a signal that the Philippines is not condoning China's island-building in contested waters, Roque said an arbitral court has ruled against such activities.

"Well, you know, there is already a decision there that the Philippines has sovereign rights where they built the artificial islands and that means that whoever built those artificial islands had no legal basis to do; and we're satisfied with the decision," Roque said.

In 2016, a Hague-based arbitral tribunal voided China's maritime claim in the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines' sovereign rights over its 200-nautical mile EEZ. China has refused to recognize the ruling, calling it "illegal" and "a mere piece of paper."

"For as long as that decision stands, we can proceed forward on matters that we think we can push on such as trade and investment and meanwhile set aside matters that we cannot resolve perhaps in our lifetime," he added.

Roque said the government is satisfied by the arbitral ruling which stated that "only the Philippines could have built those artificial islands because they form part of our exclusive economic zone."

China has built artificial islands on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Burgos (Gaven), Kennan (Hughes), Mabini (Johnson) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs, areas located off the province of Palawan that are also being claimed by the Philippines.

China welcomes Palace reassurance

In a statement on Tuesday, Huang Xilian, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, welcomed Roque's assurance that Chinese firms can freely conduct business in the Philippines.

"The participation of Chinese companies and individuals in domestic construction activities is legitimate, lawful and beyond reproach, lies entirely within its sovereignty," Huang said.

"We believe that the pursuit of an independent foreign policy is in line with the fundamental interests of the Philippines and its people," he added.

Critics have accused Duterte of selling out the Philippines' rights in the South China Sea in exchange for China-funded projects and military aid. Officials have denied this, saying the President won't give up even an inch of the country's territory to foreign powers.

During his fifth state of the nation address last July, Duterte, who has distanced himself from the US and has been seeking warmer ties with China, admitted he could not do much when it comes to the maritime row.

"So what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan, sabihin ko sa inyo (I am useless on that, I tell you). And I'm willing to admit it: Talagang inutil ako diyan (I'm really useless on that)," he said.

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