Carpio warns: Chinese ships 'prelude to occupying' reef in West PH Sea

Retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio warned that the continued presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels near Julian Felipe Reef could be a “prelude" to China's occupying of another maritime feature in the West Philippine Sea. 

In an interview on Wednesday, March 24, Carpio said he was “particularly worried” that China – by parking hundreds of ships believed to be manned by its maritime militia at the Julian Felipe Reef – was using the same strategy in occupying Mischief Reef in 1995. 

“This is not the first time they have done this. At the same time last year, in 2020, they also parked hundred of their ships in Julian Felipe Reef. So this is a prelude to – the way I look at it – this is a prelude to occupying Julian Felipe Reef just like they did to Mischief Reef in 1995,” Carpio said in an interview on ANC's Headstart

Carpio, one of the legal luminaries that secured the Philippines' victory over China at an international arbitral trinunal in The Hague, recalled China’s moves to illegally seize Mischief Reef in 1995. Mischief Reef is an underwater feature that Beijing has reclaimed to host a runway and a missile system, among other structures that neighbors are protesting. 

“They started saying they were just building a fishermen's shelter on Mischief Reef; now Mischief Reef is their air and naval base. They call it their Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea – a huge air and naval base,” Carpio said. 

“I’m particularly worried that they will now start claiming, building on Julian Felipe Reef, just like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995,” he added. 

Apart from Mischief Reef, Carpio pointed out that China had also effectively taken control of Sandy Cay, a sandbar just two nautical miles from Pag-asa Island and within the territorial sea of the island.

“Now China is doing the same thing to Julian Felipe Reef and we should be very wary of what’s happening in Julian Felipe Reef,” he said. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin reacted to Carpio's warning on Twitter, saying that the Duterte government would not yield "even a nautical iota as PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) declared in the UN (United Nations)." (READ: Duterte makes history, raises Hague ruling in UN assembly)

Locsin made the remark in a tweet where he claimed the Philippines and China confronted one another in Mischief Reef, though this took place in Scarborough Shoal in 2012, not in Mischief Reef in 1995.

Confronting China

Carpio stressed that while countries, including China, can express the right to navigation, it cannot park hundreds of its vessels in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. 

“They were saying they took shelter because of a storm but no storm was anywhere near Julian Felipe Reef,” Carpio said, referring to China’s denial that ships in the area were not manned by militia and instead took shelter from rough sea conditions. 

The Philippines' National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea earlier said it believed the vessels massed near Julian Felipe Reef were manned by Chinese maritime militia, adding that the ships appeared to show no signs of "actual fishing activities," and had been spotted with lights turned on at night despite clear weather.  

The Armed Forces of the Philippines said that as of Tuesday, March 23, at least 183 Chinese vessels surrounded Julian Felipe Reef, about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan. Despite this, the military admitted it was undecided about “the best course of action” to take after the ships were first spotted on March 7. 

Asked if sending a navy vessel to the area would be considered a hostile act, Carpio underscored that such exercise to protect the Philippines' rights in the West Philippine Sea “can never be considered an act of war.”

“Under international laws, every state has the right to protect its resources in its exclusive economic zone. It's your right. An exercise of a right cannot be considered an act of war. That’s a wrong interpretation; that’s not international law,” he said. 

Protest just the first step

While the Duterte government may opt not to send a patrol or navy vessel to the area, Carpio said the Philippines has other options including taking China to court once more. 

Carpio recognized Locsin's move to file a diplomatic protest against China over the issue, but said “we do not stop at a diplomatic protest.”

“If we don’t want to send a coast guard or navy ship, we should at the very least file a case before the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) tribunal that China is taking away or seizing our EEZ because this is the way they did it in Mischief Reef,” he said.

The 2016 landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration said China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines, declaring that Mischief Reef falls within an area that “only the Philippines possesses [with] possible entitlements to maritime zones” under UNCLOS.

“You can just see that this is again China playing the same playbook it did in Mischief Reef,” Carpio said.

But what value is there to filing another case against China if it has refused to comply with the 2016 Hague ruling? Carpio said doing so would continue to rally world opinion against China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. 

“We are harnessing world opinion here if we use the rule of law and that is our strength because we know we have the law on our side. We should use it to the hilt. We cannot just file protest and protest without proceeding to the next step,” he said. 

This much could be seen with the international community rallying behind the 2016 Hague ruling, he said. “The US, UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Australia, even India, they are saying China must comply with the arbitral ruling,” Carpio said. 

On Wednesday morning, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian continued to insist that hundreds of Chinese vessels near Juan Felipe Reef were still in the area “taking shelter.” 

“Chinese fishing vessels have been fishing in the area for many many years. Now those vessels are taking shelter in that part of the sea. There are no such militia vessels as claimed by some people. Any speculation is not helpful,” Huang told reporters during the arrival of another shipment of Sinovac vaccine donated by China to the Philippines.

On Malacañang's assurance that President Rodrigo Duterte would bring up the issue with Huang since the Philippines and China are "friends," Carpio said: “Friends should not occupy each other's backyards. China should not seize our territory and maritime zones. Friends do not do this to each other.” – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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