By Karl Romano and Felipe Villamor
The Philippines is constructing lighthouses in areas it controls in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Wednesday as they denied persistent claims that Manila had been quiet in the face of Chinese military expansionism in the region.
Manila would “not abandon” a 2016 finding by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled in favor of the Philippines after it questioned China’s encroachment in Scarborough Shoal, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said. The shoal lies west of the main Philippine island of Luzon and is clearly within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
Esperon said the ruling was “merely set aside” in line with President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of keeping cordial relations with countries that have varying claims to the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea, as Manila calls it.
“At the proper time, we will take full advantage of the tribunal ruling, even as China refuses to recognize this, to serve as basis for the country’s exercise of sovereignty and jurisdiction over features that are in the Philippine territorial waters,” Esperon said.
While the government appeared to be keeping silent, he said, it was continuously monitoring actions in the sea region. In particular, the government noted “with serious concern the growing militarization in the area, such as the deployment of military assets” on Chinese-held islands near Philippine territory.
“In response to these actions, the Philippine government has not been remiss in undertaking diplomatic actions against any nation,” Esperon said, adding that the foreign office had already made representations through a bilateral consultation mechanism between the Philippines and China.
And to dispel public fears that the country was not doing anything amid the Chinese movements, Esperon said the government was presently upgrading port and airstrip facilities on Pag-asa island (Thitu island), where about 100 or so civilians live.
“This is necessary for trade, the preservation of the livelihood of the fisher folk, and the timely delivery of basic necessities of the community in the Municipality of Pag-asa,” Esperon said.
“Lighthouses are also now being constructed on features held by the Philippines to ensure safety of navigation,” as provided for under international conventions to provide navigational safety for all international vessels transmitting the sea region, he said.
This month, China raised concerns in the region after it landed long-range bomber planes such as the H-6K, which is capable of carrying air-launched cruise missiles, on one of its occupied islands for the first time as part of training exercises.
It also reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a disputed group of atolls and isles in the South China Sea. Apart from the Philippines and China, the mineral-rich region is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a think-tank, also released satellite photographs of the Chinese activities, including what appeared to be Chinese surveillance planes.
The Philippine has largely kept quiet on the issue, but the government released a statement last week reiterating its commitment to protect “every inch” of its territory, even as it said it had no clear evidence of the Chinese buildup.
President Rodrigo Duterte has also taken pains against antagonizing China, which he has called a friend and rich source of development aid.
Speaking at a congressional hearing on the issue Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano defended the government’s apparent silence on the matter, saying there was no need to publicize every action that the government took.
He said the goal of protecting the country’s “territorial integrity” remained the same “but the approach or the underlying result of such approach is different.”
“The past administration chose the approach of being loud, resulting in us losing control of a very important area in our national territory. Yes, there were gains, there were several gains, but there were also major losses,” he said.
Duterte, according to Cayetano, was “prudent, patient and pragmatic.”
“This approach has produced major results. It changed the momentum towards stability, peace and cooperation,” Cayetano argued, adding that not only had it brought stability but had led to cooperation with Beijing in the fields of defense, labor, trade and anti-terrorism.
But Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain, said Chinese harassment in the sea region had not stopped even as the country was putting on a friendlier diplomatic face.
Early this month, he said, a Philippine Navy vessel was “challenged” by a Chinese coast guard vessel during a mission to resupply a small contingent in Ayuning Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).
Lying west of the Philippine island of Palawan, the shoal is guarded by a tiny contingent of Filipino Marines stationed at a dilapidated Navy vessel that was marooned there as the country’s outpost.
“When the Philippine Navy ship launched a rubber boat to resupply BRP Sierra Madre, a chopper of PLAN (the People’s Liberation Army Navy) hovered in a close and dangerous distance. The PLAN chopper was so close that sea water splash entered the rubber boat,” Alejano said, citing military and foreign office sources.
The Chinese forces were aboard Chinese Coast Guard vessel with bow number 3368 and a PLAN ship with bow number 549.
“Before, it was only CCG that was challenging and harassing our troops. Now, the CCG was already accompanied by the PLAN,” he said. “This is a clear threat to our security forces by no less than the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy which obviously requires condemnation from our end.”
He chided Cayetano for not speaking out on the issue, even as he said he has been appraised of the alleged intimidation and threats.
“Secretary Cayetano should not feign ignorance and act clueless as if his office is not receiving pertinent information,” he said.
During the House hearing Wednesday, according to Alejano, Cayetano acknowledged that the incident had indeed occurred in Ayungin Shoal. But he did not give a clear answer when asked whether Manila was going to protest this.
“As usual, the Duterte administration gives us the same general statements that they are discussing the matter and will be taking action, but the public is still being left in the dark. If the Duterte administration wants the public to trust its approach in the West Philippine Sea, certain details meant for public consumption should be released,” Alejano said.
On Monday, Cayetano said in a speech that Duterte had warned he would go to war against Beijing if it broke the “red lines” his administration had set in dealing with the South China Sea dispute.
The red lines would include construction activities and extraction of oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea, the local name of the waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer (231-mile) exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
“The President has said that. If anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, he will go to war,” Cayetano said in his speech, an official transcription of which was provided to reporters by his office.