MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte aborted plans by the Philippine military to construct artisanal facilities on one of the sandbars near Philippine-occupied Pag-asa (Thitu) Island following a protest from China.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed this while addressing an ASEAN Leadership forum in Makati on Wednesday, November 8, which was attended by representatives of country ambassadors and representatives of think tanks and the academe.
Lorenzana said that in August, the Philippine military brought construction materials to one of the sandbars to build a nipa hut that could serve as shelter for Filipino fishermen there.
Duterte ordered the military to pull out following a "standoff" that heightened tensions, after China lodged the complaint, Lorenzana said in his speech.
"There was a standoff in Pag-asa a couple of months back. We tried to put some structures in one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted.....The President said, 'Let's pull out,'" the defense chief said. (READ: Duterte: Why should I defend West PH Sea sandbar?)
In an interview with reporters at the sidelines of the forum, Lorenzana explained, "We brought people there to put structures for our fishermen.... They (Chinese) complained that we are occupying a new feature."
DFA's agreement with China
Lorenzana said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) agreed with China's position that construction on the sandbars near Pag-asa will violate a modus vivendi agreement between the two countries not to build on new features.
These 3 sandbars cropped up in recent years less than 3 nautical miles away from Pag-asa. They've long been a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.
Pag-asa, a Philippine-occupied island, is near Subi Reef where China built an artificial island believed to be capable of hosting military facilities. (READ: The residents of Pag-asa: Life on a disputed island)
Lorenzana said Duterte supported the DFA position. "It was explained to him by Foreign Affairs Secretary [Alan Cayetano] that we have an agreement not to occupy new features. Tama naman, di ba (It's correct, right)?" he said.
The "standoff" happened during the time Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano raised concerns over the presence of Chinese ships around the sandbars. (READ: Chinese ships spotted near Pag-asa sandbars)
Duterte said then he would not risk warmer ties with China for sandbars that have been said to be a traditional fishing ground for Filipinos living on Pag-asa Island.
"Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?" he said on August 21. (READ: Duterte: Why should I defend West PH Sea sandbar?)
Lorenzana is pushing for the immediate completion of a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, concerned that similar incidents could trigger unwanted armed conflicts there.
He said at the that the regional maritime dispute in the South China Sea is "one of the most serious issues" that affects ASEAN.
"I foresee that there could be some incidents. The presence of their Coast Guard, the fishermen who are actually militias of their Coast Guard and the PLA Navy could [result in] encounters with our fishermen as well as our Coast Guard," he said in his speech at the forum.
Lorenzana said a code of conduct will guide actions of ground commanders.
"Something could happen, miscalculations, misinterpretation of actions. The protocol na sinasabi ko sa ground commanders pa lang, magkaayos na sila (With the protocol I'm talking about, the issues will be resolved on the level of ground commanders)," he said.
Lorenzana's revelation comes a day after President Rodrigo Duterte promised to discuss the situation in the West Philippine Sea with Chinese President Xi Jinping