MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang yesterday downplayed reports that China is almost done militarizing seven Philippine-claimed reefs in the South China Sea, saying the Chinese built the structures before President Duterte assumed office.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the islands, located off Palawan, were reclaimed during the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III.
“You know when I saw the headline, yes, it’s a fact perhaps, but is that news? I don’t think so. I think the moment that they start the reclamation, they declared that they will use it, they will have military facilities into the islands,” he added.
“If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what (do) they want us to do? We cannot declare war. Not only is it illegal, but it is also… because it’s impossible for us to declare war at this point,” Roque said in a press briefing.
In 2013, the Aquino administration filed a case with the UN-backed arbitral tribunal based in The Hague contesting China’s massive claim in the South China Sea. Three years later, the tribunal issued a ruling invalidating Beijing’s claim and reaffirming Manila’s maritime entitlements.
But the ruling did not stop China from building artificial islands over Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Burgos (Gaven), Kennan (Hughes), Mabini (Johnson South) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs, which are all within Philippine territory.
Duterte, who has been seeking closer ties with China, has set aside the ruling but promised to bring it up before Chinese leaders within his term. Malacañang has said the Philippines would continue to rely on China’s promise that it would not reclaim new islands.
“Those islands were reclaimed during the time of the former administration. They were complete in fact during the time of the previous administration, and I think whether or not we like it, they intended to use them as military bases,” Roque said.
“So, what do you want us to say? All that we could do is to extract a promise from China not to reclaim any new artificial islands,” he added.
“As I said this militarization, if you can call it militarization, did not happen during the Duterte administration alone. It’s been long militarized and the question is, ‘what can we do?’ What did the past administration do and what can we do?”
Roque said China has not built new artificial islands since Duterte assumed office in 2016. He brushed aside claims that China’s construction activities would allow it to have de facto control of Philippine-claimed islands in the South China Sea.
“I don’t think there’s been an instance when China has curtailed freedom of navigation despite the fact that they have weapons in these reclaimed islands,” the spokesman said.
“We hope not because after all, all countries that (have claims) are under obligation to refrain from the use of force, that is illegal under international law,” he added.
Roque also shrugged off remarks from Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that relying on the good faith of China is like relying on the good faith of a thief.
“This is a democracy, he’s entitled to his opinion. But I would expect that next time, we would read his opinion in the form of a court decision because that’s the function of the judicial branch of government… Or as I said, he could run an elective, legislative position if he wants to make policy for government,” he said.