January 21, 2018, 12:58 am
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Arroyo blames Aquino for Chinese activity in SCS

BY WENDELL VIGILIA AND VICTOR REYES

NOT on my watch.

Rep. Gloria Arroyo (Lakas-CMD, Pampanga) yesterday said China’s island-building in the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea (SCS) did not happen during her administration but during the time of her successor, Benigno S. Aquino III.

“Built during the previous administration,” the former president repeatedly said in a joint press conference with seasoned lawyer Estelito Mendoza who briefed the media about his primer, “The Ocean Space of the Maritime Area of the Philippines,” which was published by the University of the Philippines Law Center.

Arroyo made the statement as security officials said they were checking reports that Chinese Coast Guard personnel harassed Filipino fishermen at the Union Bank (Pagkakaisa Bank) in the West Philippine Sea few days ago.

Union Bank is inside the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone and near the Gaven Reef which the Chinese subjected to land reclamation.

“Union Reef or Union Bank, that’s submerged, not above water...That’s near Gaven Reef where the Chinese have a structure,” said AFP chief Gen. Eduardo Año.

Despite China’s repeated claims that it is not militarizing the disputed area, it was reported last month that the construction of its naval, air, radar and defensive facilities on Subi (Zamora), Mischief (Panganiban) and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reefs was nearly finished.

Arroyo refused to offer an unsolicited advice to President Duterte on how to deal with China, saying the Chief Executive “knows what he’s doing.”

“I don’t have all the facts (that are only available to the President) so I do not dare make any recommendation,” she said.

Before Duterte became president, the Philippines had been one of the most outspoken critics of China’s aggressive actions in the disputed waters culminating in the filing of the arbitral case.

Arroyo, while declining to offer an advice, said she has made a general recommendation during a recent National Security Council meeting in Malacañang.

“Our strategic direction is to emphasize our economic relations (with China) and transcend matters and issues between us,” Arroyo said.

Mendoza said the filing of a case before the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal by the Aquino administration “provoked” China to build island-factories in the disputed territory.

“During her (Arroyo) term there was peace and quiet in the South China Sea. One principal point is that there was no such island building factories as we experienced during the Aquino administration in the South China Sea,” he said.

He said China converted features that are part of the Kalayaan Group of Islands and to him, these became “aircraft carriers.”

“To me, up to now it (Manila’s maritime protest) is a source of enquiry on why we filed the arbitral claim. It was provoked by the arbitral claim of the Philippines,” Mendoza said.

“In effect, we were fighting in The Hague, but China was winning the seas. Before, I don’t remember China having such claims as nine-dash line,” said the lawyer, a former justice minister and solicitor general during the Marcos administration.
 
JOINT UNDERTAKING

The Kalayaan group is composed of nine islands occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly Group of Islands in the South China Sea. Other claimants to the Spratlys aside from China and the Philippines are Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In the same briefing, former Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said there was no conflict among claimant countries then because of the signing of the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), a “pre-exploratory” activity signed by the Philippines, China, and Vietnam.

Mendoza also credited the Arroyo administration for the enactment of Republic Act 9522 which defines the baselines of the Philippine archipelago – a law upheld by the Supreme Court. He noted that the SC’s decision was penned by Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.

“Without the definition of these baselines, the law of the sea convention which recognizes the archipelagic principle may not be implemented by the Philippines either to claim its sovereign rights over maritime areas or to protect them against infringement of other countries, particularly the territorial seas and the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ),” he said.

Mendoza recalled that while China did not protest the Philippines’ baselines law, it opposed the inclusion of Kalayaan and Scarborough Shoal, a fact affirmed by Arroyo.

“China didn’t file a protest and they even recognized our 200-mile exclusive economic zone,” the former president said.

Año said he learned about the harassment of fishermen from Lt. Gen. Raul del Rosario, commander of the AFP’s Western Command, who is supervising military operations in the disputed area.

“The fishermen were said to be from La Union. That’s too far. Why did they reach West Philippine Sea,” he also said.

Television reports said the fishermen are from Bataan. They quoted the fishermen as saying a Chinese Coast Guard speedboat shooed them away from the area. They said the speedboat circled their fishing boats and even fired warning shots.

Asked if they have information about the Chinese Coast Guard personnel firing warning shots, the military chief said: “We have no information about that. What we heard is harassment only.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was also verifying the reports. DFA spokesman Robespierre Bolivar also said due to the positive relations between Manila and Beijing today, there are mechanisms through which the two countries can raise the matter.

“This includes the bilateral consultation mechanism, which is meant to tackle issues of concern in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

The Chinese Coast Guard has chased away Filipino fishermen from Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea although after President Duterte’s state visit to Beijing last year, Filipino fishermen were able to ply their trade in the area even if Chinese vessels remained nearby. – With Ashzel Hachero
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