No island lost under Duterte gov't, only in Aquino administration, says Esperon

The administration of President Duterte has not allowed even a single inch of the country's maritime territory to be seized by China unlike his predecessor, the Aquino administration, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said Saturday, May 1.

Esperon made the assertion as he criticized retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio to stress the efforts of the government in protecting the country's interests in the West Philippine Sea.

"Ni minsan magmula noong 2016 ay wala tayong nawawalang isla na kinuha ng China (Not even once since 2016 that we lost an island to China," said Esperon, also the chairman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), at a virtual "Laging Handa" press briefing.

Esperon also disputed a claim made by Carpio that the country lost Sandy Cay to China in 2017.

"'Yung sinasabi ni Justice Carpio na nawala natin ang Sandy Cay, hindi totoo 'yon. Iyon ay parte ng Pagasa Island na mayroon tayong detachment na military at civilian (What Justice Carpio has been saying that we lost Sandy Cay is not true. This is part of the Pagasa Island where we have a military and civilian detachment)," he said.

"Mali si Justice Carpio, fake news, false news. Noong panahon nila may nawala, 'yung Scarborough at Mischief , dahil iyon ay dapat nasa loob ng ating EEZ (Justice Carpio is wrong, it is fake news, false news. During their time, we lost Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef which are located inside our EEZ)," he added.

Carpio, a staunch defender of the country's rights in the WPS, was criticized by Duterte last Wednesday for supposedly doing nothing during his time under the administration of former president Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.

"If you are bright, why did we lose the West Philippine Sea?" Duterte asked Carpio, who played a crucial role in the Philippines' arbitral victory over China in 2016.

According to Esperon, China seized Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal) in Zambales in 2012 while the East Asian giant started constructing on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, located approximately 125 nautical miles from Palawan, from 2013 to 2016.

The Philippines has overlapping territorial claims with several neighboring countries in the South China Sea. Among these is the Kalayaan municipality which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (Spratly Islands) in the West Philippine Sea.

According to Esperon, the Philippines maintains nine detachments in the Kalayaan Island Group, including Pagasa (Thitu) Island, the largest among them, which is located approximately 480 km west of Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

Esperon said China has also put up seven artificial islands in the Kalayaan Island Group; Vietnam claims 21 islands including 14 islands that are included in the Philippines' EEZ; Malaysia claims five islands; and Taiwan claims one island.

"Hindi talaga libre-libre 'yan na pwede pumasok anytime na wala tayong magiging kakontra (We cannot really enter it freely whenever we want to without being challenged by other forces)," Esperon said.

"Mayroon talagang dispute kaya nandyan ang pwersa ng Vietnam, China, Taiwan, at may limang isla ang Malaysia (There really is a dispute that's why the forces of Vietnam, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia with five islands are there)," he added.

However, in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea which is a body of water that is located within its 370 km exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It also invalidated China's nine-dash line claim which covers about 80 percent of the waters in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

China did not honor the tribunal ruling. Recently, the NTF-WPS said more than 240 Chinese vessels were dispersed in the West Philippine Sea as senators called on the government to investigate the possible destruction of marine environment due to Chinese fishermen's overfishing in the country's waters.

To address the challenges in the WPS, Esperon said Duterte has ordered the deployment of various military, coast guard, fisheries, and police vessels and aircraft to assert the country's claims in the disputed waters.

"Pinapagpatrolya natin ang Navy at Air Force ngunit karamihan sa pwersa ay PCG at BFAR . Lahat ng 'yan upang protektahan ang territories at upang i-enforce ang fisheries laws ng ating bayan (Our Navy and Air Force are patrolling there ut majority of the forces belong to the PCG and BFAR. All of these just to protect our territories and enforce the fisheries laws of our nation)," Esperon said.