THE Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday issued a strong statement dismissing the claim of Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua that the Philippines’ planned improvement works at Pag-asa Island would be illegal.
“Pag-asa Island and the larger Kalayaan Island Group are a municipality of Palawan,” DFA spokesman Robespierre Bolivar told reporters.
“Any visit or activity we undertake there are part and parcel of our constitutional mandate to ensure the safety, well-being, and livelihood of our citizens living in this municipality,” he asserted.
China’s envoy Zhao said Monday that “we view the occupation by the Philippine side of those islands as illegal. And so the buildings on it are also illegal.”
Pag-asa Island is the largest of the islands under the municipality of Kalayaan, which was created in 1978. The town, which has 180 residents, has a complete political structure. The town center is on Pag-asa Island, which China calls “Thitu.”
Zhao, in response to questions from reporters, uttered the controversial statement while President Rodrigo Duterte was touring three Chinese warships that visited Davao City on Monday.
“It’s common practice. In our position, we have the ownership of those islands and reefs. And whichever airplanes or aircraft intrude, we will give them warnings,” said Zhao.
It was Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, during his visit to Pag-asa Island last month with military generals, who announced that the government had earmarked at least P1 billion to improve facilities on Pag-asa Island, including the repair of an airstrip.
Lorenzana had pointed to China’s extensive development of Subi Reef. Satellite images have shown anti-aircraft guns and weapons systems on the reef, which is being claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
China has sparked regional concern by turning reefs and shoals in contested areas into artificial islands, installing military facilities and airstrips on some of them.
Duterte, elected last year, has distanced himself from traditional longtime ally the United States. He has played down the country’s territorial dispute with China in favor of seeking greater economic aid and investment from Beijing.
A statement issued after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Manila merely took note of “concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area.”
It also ignored last year’s international ruling outlawing China’s sweeping claims to the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Asean members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the waterway, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it.
Foreign Affairs Executive Director Zaldy Patron said not one of the Asean leaders “strongly pushed” against China’s militarization and reclamation activities.
He said the Asean chairman’s statement was also silent on the ruling of the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal that favored the Philippines in its case against China because there was no consensus among members of the bloc.
“There is no mention of arbitration because last year, even last year in Vientiane, there was no consensus to have it reflected in any of the Asean statements,” Patron said.
“During the Plenary and Summit, there was no leader that mentioned inclusion or made reference to land reclamation, militarization and arbitration. So that was what we are trying to reflect in the Chairman’s statement,” he added.
What the leaders highlighted, he said, were the efforts of the Asean and China to strengthen cooperation and repair ties that have been frayed by the sea row.
‘Harassment reports unverified’
Zhao downplayed reports from Filipino fishermen about being harassed by Chinese vessels in March over the disputed waters, particularly in the Union Banks of the Kalayaan group.
“I think the reports of harassment have never been verified. It is only reports. I haven’t seen any hard evidence supporting that allegation,” Zhao said.
Sino-Philippine relations remain strong as shown by multi-million dollar infrastructure projects, Zhao said.
“I don’t think that the small issues will affect the overall direction of our bilateral relationship,” the Chinese ambassador said.