MANILA, Philippines - President Duterte believes the Philippine government cannot stop China from installing a radar station in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal that has been declared a traditional common fishing ground by an arbitral tribunal, which also invalidated Beijing’s nine-dash claim over the whole of the South China Sea.
But Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has pushed the panic button on China’s plan while a militant fisher group urged the President to vigorously assert the country’s sovereign rights over Panatag Shoal and Benham Rise.
“We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them,” Duterte said in a press conference at the Davao International Airport before leaving for a two-day official visit to Myanmar yesterday afternoon.
“So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China?” Duterte asked. “I can but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation. And we cannot assert even a single sentence of any provision that we signed.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs said it is verifying a report by Chinese newspaper Hainan Daily that quoted Sansha Communist Party secretary Xiao Jie as saying that preparations are underway to build an environmental monitoring station at Panatag Shoal.
Duterte also said the Philippines would ensure freedom of navigation not just in Panatag that is part of the West Philippine Sea, but also in Benham Rise.
Panatag Shoal, located some 230 kilometers off Zambales, was a common fishing ground of Filipino, Chinese and even Vietnamese fishermen until it was occupied by the Chinese Navy after a standoff with the Philippine Navy in 2012.
Benham Rise is a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau located near Aurora. It is larger than Luzon, the Philippines’ biggest island, and is considered part of the country’s continental shelf.
Duterte said he agreed to allow China to conduct surveying or research mission in the area. But the DFA and the Department of National Defense said they were not aware of the agreement.
During yesterday’s press conference, Duterte said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during his Beijing visit last year that “I will not invoke the arbitral ruling now” but “there will be a time in my term when I will bring the issue back on the table on the foursquare of the arbitral ruling and it will come.”
“When? When they shall start to tinker with entitlements. Tubig pa lang ngayon eh,” Duterte said, noting it’s presently all just water.
But he said Chinese ships are welcome to pass or “come and dock” like those from Russia “and let me see your armaments there.”
Duterte said he also asked the Chinese “not to do anything” to the Philippine Coast Guard as it patrols the country’s maritime waters.
“Kasi you (China) claim to own it, I claim it to be mine. In the meantime, just keep open at ’wag mong galawin ’yung mga Coast Guard ko.
“Wag naman ’yung gray ships, the gray ships are the Navy. O kaya hindi man sila nagpadala doon. Ang nagpapadala ho ng gray ships ang Amerika. Ang China hindi nagpapadala ng Navy niya, Coast Guard lang palagi,” Duterte said, clarifying that China only sends the Coast Guard while the US sends its gray-shipped Navy.
He said the US could also navigate the country’s waters without interference.
As President, he said he does not want to play favorites from one country to another.
“(Under the doctrine of) right of passage, anybody can. The Americans go there everyday. Why will I discriminate China? We are not at war against China. I am not at war against America,” he said.
“And yet American ships come and go, why should I not allow the Russians, you are also my friend. China is also our friend. And we are now improving on our economy because of the help of China, bakit ka naman mag-walanghiya? Para magdaan lang,” Duterte said, stressing it wasn’t right to deny anyone the courtesy of passage.
Duterte, overwhelmed by Beijing’s offer of $10 billion in investment package and assistance, said he is satisfied so far that China recognizes the Philippines’ claim over the area, apparently referring to Benham Rise.
“So what if it stops there? They admit that it is within the territory of the Philippines. That does not satisfy you? Ano gusto mo paluhurin mo yung tao (You want to make them kneel)?” he said, before accusing critics of “nitpicking” just to raise questions about his presidency.
In the same press briefing, Duterte questioned a critic for raising a howl over his move to renew bilateral ties with Beijing, and not invoking the arbitration ruling in the disputed areas.
But Carpio, in a statement issued over the weekend, warned that the installation of an environmental monitoring station at the shoal is all that China needs to be able to set up its air defense zone in the South China Sea.
“A radar station on Scarborough Shoal will immediately complete China’s radar coverage of the entire South China Sea. China can then impose an ADIZ or air defense identification zone,” Carpio pointed out.
He reiterated that the shoal is part of Philippine territory over which the country has sovereignty.
Carpio pointed out that China has just completed building its radar stations in Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef that are composed of concrete hexagonal structures with retractable roofs to house missile batteries.
“China will use its HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles to enforce the ADIZ. These missiles are now installed on Woody Island in the Paracels,” the magistrate bared.
HQ-9 is China’s medium- to long-range active radar homing surface-to-air missile system similar to the Russian S-300 and American Patriot.
“The Chinese will of course also use these same military installations to enforce the (nine)-dash lines as China’s national boundaries in the South China Sea. That means China will grab 80 percent of Philippine exclusive economic zone and 100 percent of Philippine extended continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea,” he further warned.
Carpio recalled how China built in 1987 a radar weather station on Fiery Cross Reef (an outcrop in the Spratlys just a meter above water) ostensibly to help UNESCO’s global oceanic survey. But about two years ago, it turned the weather station into a 270-hectare military air-naval base. – With Edith Regalado, Edu Punay, Romina Cabrera era