Malacañang on China buildup on PH reef: What do you want us to do?

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Malacañang, on Monday, February 5, portrayed itself as helpless in the face of China's continued construction on Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), a reef that belongs to the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

"If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what do they want us to do?" asked Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque during a Palace news briefing.

He was asked what the Philippine government intends to do about the new structures built by China on the reef located in the Spratlys which the Permanent Court of Arbitration, through a landmark ruling, affirmed belongs to the Philippines.

Photos show the reclaimed reef now has a concrete runway, two radomes for radar equipment, two hangars, and a control tower.

Roque said the reclamation of the reefs in the Spratlys began during the administration of Benigno Aquino III and that the government had already known then of China's plan to build military structures on them.

"I think whether or not we like it, they intended to use them as military bases. So, what do you want us to say? All that we could do is to extract a promise from China not to reclaim any new artificial islands," said President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman. 

Asked if the Philippines intends to file a diplomatic protest against China, Roque was evasive.

"In the first place, it did not happen overnight. I think the previous administration must have filed also a protest, when it became apparent that they were going to be used as military bases," he said. 

Roque insisted that the only red flag for Malacañang is if China creates more artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea.

This despite Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana saying a month ago that even just military buildup on existing artificial islands is a violation of China's promise.

"I know for a fact that the Chinese government said some time ago that they are not going to militarize those reclaimed islands," said Lorenzana last January 8.

"If it is true and we can prove that they have been putting soldiers and weapons, then it will be a violation of what they said," he added.

Asked to explain the discrepancy between his remarks and that of the defense chief, Roque said he can only speak for Duterte and not for other Cabinet members.

Options outside of war

This is the second time Roque has downplayed new Chinese construction in the West Philippine Sea. In early January, he also said the transformation of Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef) into a Chinese air base was not a violation of China's "good faith commitment."

During the Monday briefing, Roque wondered out loud what else the Duterte administration could do in the face of China's continued construction on reclaimed reefs. He even asked reporters present for suggestions since declaring war against China is "impossible."

Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had previously outlined 5 steps the Duterte administration could take to deter China's activities in the West Philippine Sea without going to war. 

One of these steps is to file a diplomatic protest. Another is to send the Philippine Navy to patrol features in the EEZ.

Carpio also said the Philippines could ask for the assistance of the United States, possibly in the form of joint naval patrols. He also advised the government to avoid any act or statement that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: Why Justice Carpio wants China to read his e-book)

Asked about Carpio's criticism of the Duterte administration's decision to trust China's word on its activities in the West Philippine Sea, Roque said it would be better for Carpio to write a relevant court decision or to run for a post in government. 

"He could run [for] an elective, legislative position if he wants to make policy for government," said Roque. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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