PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday that the Philippines cannot stop China’s reported plan to construct an environment monitoring station on the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.
According to Filipino media, the leader acknowledged reports but said nothing could be done about the matter, despite concerns raised over China’s increased military presence in the area.
“We cannot stop China from doing its thing,” he was quoted saying in ABS-CBN News in a speech before departing for Burma.
The Philippine Star said Duterte also recalled that former foreign affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay had once asked him what to do about Beijing’s plans to build facilities in the South China Sea. He said in his response, he had said he could declare war on China but that would mean losing more than just the Philippines’ territorial claim of the disputed maritime zone.
“What do you want me to do?…. Declare war against China? I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we are a destroyed nation,” he was quoted as saying.
Duterte 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.
He pledged again to raise the matter during his term, saying this will happen when China starts “tinkering with entitlement”.
“I will not invoke the arbitral ruling now but there will be a time in my term when I will bring the issue back on the table on the foursquare of the arbitral ruling and it will come.
“When? When they shall start tinkering with entitlement,” the local daily quoted him saying.
Philippines and China have been locked for years in a territorial dispute over control of the South China Sea. But in July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippines, saying China had no legal basis to claim “historic rights” to the South China Sea. The court also accused China of infringing on the Philippines’ sovereign rights through its interference with fishing and petroleum exploration and through the construction of artificial islands.
Duterte, however, in his bid to mend Manila’s ties with Beijing and steer his country away from Washington, last year decided against invoking the ruling, pledging to revisit the issue later during his term.
But recent Chinese actions in the disputed maritime zone have put Duterte in an difficult position.
Last week, he was forced to allay public fears on the matter when a Chinese survey ship was spotted by the navy on Benham Rise. In his explanation, Duterte said the Chinese had received prior invitation to conduct research in the 13 million hectare waterway but this was later disputed by the country’s defence and foreign departments.
Then on Friday, a Hainan Daily report quoted Sansha Communist Party secretary Xiao Jie as claiming that China will begin preparatory work this year for the environment monitoring station in Scarborough Shoal. Xiao Jie is also the mayor of Sansha City, said to be an administrative base for the disputed South China Sea islands.
Following the report, the Philippine Supreme Court’s Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio sounded a warning to the government, saying without intervention, China may impose an “air defense identification zone” and end up controlling all of South China Sea.
The waterway is a major shipping route where an estimated US$5 trillion of trade passes through annually. It is home to the Paracels and Spratlys – the two main island chains that a number of claimants have interest in, and where there is said to be reserves of untapped natural resources.
Other areas in the dispute include dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal. The interests of nations involved include demands to retain or acquire rights to fishing areas; the exploration of potential crude oil and natural gas; as well as the strategic control of important shipping lanes.