BEIJING — The Philippines’ ambassador to China on Wednesday rejected concerns that the Duterte administration’s decision to shelve the arbitral ruling won over China a year ago would compromise the country’s claims in the West Philippine Sea.
Ambassador Jose Sta. Romana insisted the Philippines did “not lose an inch of territory” to China and that the Chinese government had given assurance that it would not reclaim and build on Panatag Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the coast of Zambales province known internationally as Scarborough Shoal.
“I think we gained,” Sta. Romana told visiting Filipino journalists.
“Whereas before we didn’t have access to Scarborough Shoal, now we have access. Before there were fears that the Chinese will reclaim Scarborough Shoal, now the Chinese are saying they won’t build,” he said.
Sta. Romana also considered a gain the lifting of a Chinese blockade that cut supply lines to Philippine outposts on Pag-asa Island and Ayungin Shoal in the Spratly archipelago.
“So on the whole, the tensions have eased,” he said.
Further justifying the decision to shelve the arbitral ruling, Sta. Romana said the Duterte administration “combined principle with pragmatism” by setting aside the territorial dispute and focusing on bilateral relations.
“For China to accept the (arbitral) award before the improvement of relations, nothing will happen. Our relations will be frozen if both sides will not budge. It will be frozen forever,” he said.
“So the idea was, you still discuss the disputes but you separate it from areas where there are no disputes and don’t allow it to be an obstacle to the development of relations,” he added.
In February, then Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said that during President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October last year, China promised not to build on Panatag Shoal.
A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, however, said China’s claim to Panatag Shoal was “consistent and clear and and is subject to no change.”
According to maritime security analyst Jay Batongbacal, Chinese fishing vessels regularly operate inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea — the West Philippine Sea — including Panatag Shoal, while Filipino fishermen are limited to the fringes of the resource-rich shoal.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels also constantly challenge Philippine Navy and Coast Guard patrols with occasional dangerous maneuvers, while Philippine Air Force pilots conducting patrols or resupplying outposts are ordered to turn back, he said.
Batongbacal said Chinese maritime scientific research vessels had lately been spotted around Recto (Reed) Bank, south of Panatag Shoal, or along the coasts of Palawan, Mindoro and Luzon while Philippine resource survey activities had “practically stopped.”
“The West Philippine Sea may soon come under China’s dominance sooner rather than later. The Philippines may find that it will be too late to do anything against environmental degradation, fisheries collapse and overwhelming Chinese maritime military/paramilitary uses of the sea under the present policy,” Batongbacal warned.
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