Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Tuesday, May 18, that he does not see any real tension in the maritime issues in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), adding that critics of the administration are making up the issue.
Although admitting that there are problems in the disputed waters, the Palace official insisted that the “tension” only exists in the Philippines.
“Wala po akong nakikitang tensyon sa West Philippine Sea. Ang tensyon ho ay binubuo ng mga kritiko dito lang sa Pilipinas…So, ang ingay po ay nandito sa Pilipinas lamang (I don’t see any tension in the West Philippine Sea. The tension is being formed by the critics here in the Philippines… So, the noise only comes from inside the Philippines),” he said during a virtual press briefing.
Roque claimed this despite the presence of several Chinese fishing vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef, which is part of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). He also earlier said the reef was not part of the EEZ.
He again pinned the blame on the existing maritime issues with China on the Aquino administration, who he claimed to have started the tension in the waters because of the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) standoff in 2012.
The shoal is part of Zambales’ province EEZ, and was the site of a military standoff between Beijing and Manila during the time of former President Benigno Aquino III.
The Philippines decided to withdraw its ship from the shoal almost three months after the start of the standoff. This was a result of a deal brokered by the United States, but China reneged on the agreement to withdraw from the shoal.
As a result, the Aquino administration filed the arbitral tribunal case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. The Philippines won the arbitral case in July 2016, a few weeks after President Duterte was elected.
Roque argued that the Philippines has not lost any part of its territory under Duterte’s administration because China follows the status quo agreement where both countries will not have expansionist projects in the disputed waters.
“Paulit-ulit na po nating sinasabi na hindi po tinitigil ni Presidente ang pagdedepensa sa ating teritoryo. Meron lang po mga panlilinlang nanggagaling po sa mga kritiko (We keep on saying that the President is not stopping from defending our territory. The critics are just trying to deceive the people),” the spokesman said.
“Hindi po tayo nawalan ng teritoryo sa administrasyon ni Presidente Duterte. Nangyari po iyan sa ibang administrasyon (We did not lose a territory under the administration of President Duterte. That happened under a different administration),” Roque added.
There are no structures in the Scarborough Shoal, but China is effectively in control of it, having established the presence of its Coast Guard there since 2012.
Meanwhile, Roque refused to interpret Duterte’s message that no Cabinet officials can speak about the maritime disputes, and this might even include his own Foreign Affairs and Defense secretaries.
Both Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and Defense chief Delfin Lorenzana have been vocal about wanting to see Chinese vessels leave the Julian Felipe Reef.
“I think the President’s message was clear and I don’t have to interpret it,” Roque said.