MANILA – Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Wednesday refused to comment on reported improvements on China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had bared citing images from an American think tank.
Cayetano said surveillance images provided by US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) do not give the whole picture of what is happening in the disputed waters.
“Sometimes they go into Philippine interest, sometimes hindi. What I’ve noticed about CSIS is that they don’t give you all the pictures,” he said in a press conference.
“Because if they show that, everyone will be protesting against each other. Because it’s not only China who’s building,” the former senator said.
Six parties- the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan- have conflicting claims to the resource-rich waters. Amid the unresolved maritime dispute, China has ramped up militarization and island-building activities in the waters.
Beijing has also ignored Manila’s landmark July 2016 arbitral victory, which invalidated its sweeping claims over nearly all of the South China Sea.
Lorenzana had said Tuesday that certain ‘improvements’ on structures that China put up on three of its artificial islands in the disputed waters have been spotted.
The report, he said, was based on pictures taken in November and just last month. He said the Philippines has asked “some of our friends, like the US” to help verify the data.
The defense chief also said officials have already communicated with the Department of Foreign Affairs for the possible filing of a diplomatic protest against China.
Pressed for details, the DFA chief did not give a definite answer, saying going public would not contribute to having a conducive environment for dialogue.
Cayetano made the assurance that “everything is being done to protect our claim.” He added that China has already given the assurance that it would not build on Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone just off Zambales.
The shoal was the site of a standoff between the Philippines and China in 2012, with the latter driving away Filipino fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds.
Amid warming ties between the two sides, China recently allowed Filipino fishermen back to the area.
Still, complaints from fishermen persist.
Cayetano assured Filipino fishermen depending on resources near the shoal that their complaints are being looked into.
But he emphasized that the agreement was for fishermen, whether Chinese or Filipino, to fish around Scarborough shoal, and not inside the lagoon.
“We do have a mechanism now both for the DFA and the Coast Guard for complaints na inaagawan [ng isda],” he said.
“I can tell you, there are complaints at iniisa-isa namin. If there are shooting incidents, may tinataboy di ba? There are different results to the investigations,” he added.
Cayetano on Tuesday met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Manila, where the two officials signed a memorandum of understanding to boost bilateral relations.