By Martin Sadongdong
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday clarified that President Duterte must have been misheard in one instance during his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) while tackling the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue.
Duterte said that China “is in possession” of the West Philippine Sea, which expectedly raised the eyebrows of his critics.
“China also claims the property and he is in possession. ‘Yan ang problema (That is the problem). Sila ‘yung (They are) in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner,” Duterte said.
The same words were used in the official transcript of the President’s SONA sent by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) to the media.
But speaking in a post-SONA press conference in Quezon City, Esperon and Lorenzana both defended the President by saying that what they heard from him was China is “in position” in the West Philippine Sea.
“I think the President did not say that they are ‘in possession’ but they are ‘in position,'” Esperon said.
“Admittedly, China has built up artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea starting from 2012 to 2016 and up to now,” he added.
“So they are in position in islands such as the Mischief Reef, which is within our EEZ [exclusive economic zone], they are also in position in the Fiery Cross which is outside our EEZ, and in Subi Reef Zamora,” he stated.
Esperon was referring to the reclamation works and military installations conducted by China on the seven reefs being claimed by the Philippines in the Spratlys Islands namely: Kagitingan (Fiery Cross Reef), Calderon (Cuarteron Reef), Burgos (Gaven Reefs), Mabini (Johnson South Reef), Zamora (Subi/Zhubi Reef), McKennan (Hughes Reef), and Panganiban (Mischief Reef).
Lorenzana said the President must have been referring to Scarborough Shoal and not the entire West Philippine Sea.
“Iyin ang narinig namin (That’s what we heard). But I think he was referring to Scarborough Shoal na nakuha nila sa atin (that they took from us). We used to possess that, eh nakuha nila (they took it),” he said.
Oftentimes, the terms “West Philippine Sea” and “South China Sea” are used interchangeably, which maritime experts said should be avoided.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China’s claim to sovereign rights over most of the South China Sea, including parts of the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The previous Aquino administration named it the West Philippine Sea.
Senior Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that China “is not in possession of the West Philippine Sea.”
“China is in possession of the seven features in the Spratly’s Islands plus the Scarborough Shoal. In addition, during the Duterte administration, China seized Sandy Cay from the Philippines,” Carpio said.
He said that the total area of the geological features “is less than seven percent” of the West Philippine Sea.
Lorenzana said that what’s important is that the Filipino fishermen “can fish” in the disputed waters.
“Our fishermen can fish within the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal and also in Mischief Reef. That’s the reason why one of our fishing boats had an accident with a Chinese fishing boat because they are there. That area is a fishing ground for people coming from the neighborhood,” the Defense Chief stated, referring to the Gem-Vir1 boat that was rammed by a Chinese vessel within the vicinity of the Recto Bank on June 9.
“Nakaposition sila sa mga islands nila but they are not in possession o pag-aari nila ang West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it (They are in position in their islands but they are not in possession of the West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it),” he added.