MANILA, Philippines – A Navy-officer-turned-lawmaker on Tuesday, February 20, said it was "unacceptable" for President Rodrigo Duterte to joke about turning the Philippines into a Chinese province.
"Such irresponsible banter is a slap in the face of the many Filipinos, including our soldiers stationed in our occupied islands who work tirelessly to defend our territorial integrity from China. This only shows how indifferent and apathetic Duterte is to China's bastardization of our sovereignty," said Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano in a press briefing.
At the anniversary of the Chinese Business Club in the Philippines, Duterte downplayed China's activities in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), including its militarization. China has claimed practically the entire South China Sea, and is locked in disputes with several countries over this.
The Philippines' last line of defense in the contested area is a grounded World War II ship at the Second Thomas Shoal, which is guarded by a handful of Philippine Marines. In 2013, a Chinese ship circled the area "illegally and provocatively."
A recent report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer showed the extent of China's efforts to reclaim and militarize disputed areas in the South China Sea, including Mischief Reef, a maritime feature inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Alejano said Duterte's joke is "close to the truth."
Citing "information" he received, the lawmaker said a Philippine Navy ship conducting a regular troop rotation and mission saw a Chinese vessel around 4 nautical miles off Pag-asa Island. Later, two more Chinese vessels were reportedly seen heading towards the first vessel.
Ships from the Chinese Coast Guard and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy were later seen around 5 nautical miles off the island.
The ships, according to Alejano's information, formed a semicircle around Pag-asa Island as the Chinese Coast Guard and Navy ships shadowed the Philippine Navy vessel, coming as close as two nautical miles from Pag-asa Island, which is part of the Philippine province of Palawan.
"The quick response of Chinese vessels upon the arrival of our Navy ship in Pag-asa Island suggests that they are permanently stationed nearby," said Alejano.
Alejano's ally in the House opposition bloc, Akbayan Representative Tom Villarin, also slammed Duterte for his "joke," pointing out that it "manifests his willful subservience at the expense of our sovereignty."
"The joke is on us if we don't call him out for such irresponsible statements," added Villarin. – Rappler.com