EDITORIAL - A friend speaks out

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL - A friend speaks out

Even critics were impressed: President Duterte, in a rare public display of exasperation, said last week that China should “lay off” the Pag-asa island group in the Spratlys.

The President issued the statement after being informed by security officials about the presence of some 200 ships believed to be part of China’s maritime militia near Pag-asa Island, part of the Palawan municipality of Kalayaan where many residents are soldiers and the main source of livelihood is fishing in the West Philippine Sea. Records of the Armed Forces of the Philippines show that the Chinese vessels have been monitored in the area since the start of the year.

While the President stressed that his statement was meant as an advice to a friend, he told Beijing, “I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you to lay off Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch it, that’s a different story. I will tell the soldiers, ‘prepare for a suicide mission.’ ”

Whether his Chinese friends will heed his advice remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Department of Foreign Affairs has lodged a formal protest over the presence of the Chinese vessels. Similar vessels continue to patrol Panatag or Scarborough Shoal off Zambales, which in 2016 was declared by a UN-backed arbitral court as a common fishing area over which no country is supposed to have control.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also awarded the Philippines sovereign rights over Panganiban or Mischief Reef off Palawan, which the Chinese have turned into an artificial island on which they have built a multistory garrison. So far, there has been no indication that Beijing intends to leave Panganiban Reef.

President Duterte has gone out of his way to extend a hand of friendship toward China amid the continuing dispute in the South China Sea. Bilateral ties continue to strengthen on various fronts. How Beijing will react to his “advice” on Pag-asa, however, will test whether his rapprochement is worth it.

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