President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday said he could not stop China from building on a disputed shoal near his country’s west coast because it was too powerful.
The mayor of China’s Sansha city has reportedly said Beijing would set up an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, locally known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
“We cannot stop China from doing (these) things,” Mr. Duterte told journalists when asked about the reports.
“What do you want me to do Declare war against China I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation,” he told a press conference before departing for a visit to Myanmar.
The President also noted that during recent discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, he had already committed to temporarily setting aside the ruling on the South China Sea made last year by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.“Let it be clear, for the life of me... I told (Chinese President) Xi Jinping that I may not invoke the ruling yet as of now. But there will come a time that I will. As of now, we have good relations with China. So why spoil it?”
Duterte said he would tell the Chinese: “Just keep it (the waters) open and do not interfere with our Coast Guard.”
He added “American ships are free to navigate the Philippine waters.
“Why would I discriminate against China China is our friend,” the President stressed, adding he also “invited Russia” to do the same.
Mr. Duterte also brushed aside concerns over Chinese survey ships that had been seen near Benham Rise — waters east of Luzon that have been recognized by the United Nation as indisputably Philippine territory.
Sansha Communist Party Secretary Xiao Jie who administers China’s island claims was quoted by the official Hainan Daily newspaper as saying such stations were being built on six islands and reefs, including Scarborough Shoal off the northwestern Philippines.
He added preparatory work on the stations was among the government’s priorities for 2017, but gave no other details.
South China Sea tensions have eased somewhat since Beijing erupted in fury last year after a Hague-based arbitration tribunal ruled on a case filed by the Philippines, invalidating China’s sweeping territorial claims and determining that China violated the rights of Filipinos to fish at Scarborough Shoal.
China has since allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the shoal following Mr. Duterte’s calls for closer ties between the countries, but it does not recognize the tribunal’s ruling as valid and insists it has historical claims to almost the entire South China Sea, through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes each year.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have long contested ownership of the South China Sea, which straddles one of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is believed to sit atop vast deposits of oil and gas.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was very concerned that the ships had been seen at that location, sometimes for as long as a month.
But Duterte said: “So what if they stop there They admit it is within the territory of the Philippines. That does not satisfy you?”
He described the complaints against China as “nit-picking.”
Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had actively challenged China’s claim to control most of the South China Sea, despite counter-claims by several other nations.
But the President, who took office last year, has reversed that policy and is seeking billions of dollars worth of investments and grants from Beijing.
“We are now improving the economy because of the help of China. Why will you be so shameless just because they are passing by?” he told reporters yesterday.
Beijing has already reclaimed large areas around several islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago elsewhere in the South China Sea, and installed military facilities on some of them.
Analysts, however, warned that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230 kilometers from Luzon.
Outposts on the shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines, some of which could host US troops.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries’ navies from using the waters.
Meanwhile, fisherfolk group Pamalakaya expressed fears that China’s plan to develop the shoal might compromise the livelihood of the Filipino fishermen who were already able to return to their traditional fishing grounds last year following President Duterte’s diplomatic talk with China.
“We cherish the developments that our country and China have reached toward a diplomatic resolution of the dispute, but building permanent structure to strengthen their irrational claim and probably military presence in our territory is too much,” Pamalakaya chairman Fernando Hicap, in a statement, said.
“Our cordial relation with China recently doesn’t mean that we have given up our claim on the disputed waters. We are always ready to defend our territory by all means,” he added.
Ted Tuvera and AFP