Opposition lawmaker Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano on Saturday claimed the Duterte administration had ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to stop patrolling the disputed West Philippine Sea, a claim immediately impugned by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
“I received information that the Duterte administration ordered our Armed Forces not to patrol the West Philippine Sea anymore,” Alejano said, citing what he called military sources.
“Isn’t that an impeachable offense already?” he asked during a weekend forum.
Alejano, however, clarified he did not have hard evidence to support his claim but added he trusted his sources.
“I’m confident with the information coming from my sources,” he said.
But Lorenzana, sought for comment, underlined “there was no such order” but he stopped short of elaborating.
The lawmaker also claimed the alleged order to stop patrols in the disputed waters had been in place since the latter part of 2017.
In a related development:
• The militant group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Saturday condemned the China Coast Guard’s “unacceptable” harassment of Filipino fishermen in the waters of Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal), urging the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest.
“Bayan condemns the recent harassment of Filipino fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard at Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal. The actions of the Chinese Coast Guard are unacceptable,” it said in a statement.
• In the Senate, Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III on Saturday said the recent incident of Chinese Coast Guard taking Filipino fishermen ’s catch from Panatag Shoal did not call for another international arbitration.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio on Friday said Manila could bring another case against Beijing before the court that invalidated the latter’s excessive claims over the South China Sea after Chinese Coast Guard was caught on video taking Filipino fishermen’s catch in Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.
Alejano said Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano filed only one diplomatic protest against China on the WPS dispute, belying the Foreign Affairs chief’s earlier claim the Duterte administration filed between 50 and 100 diplomatic protests in the last two years.
“The reality is [Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano] only filed one protest...in the form of a note verbale; and he was forced to do that because there was a demand within the administration on what the Foreign Affairs [department has been doing to address the issue involving China],” Alejano said on Saturday.
Alejano alleged that Cayetano did the filing of the protest “in haste” and that it was sent to the residence of the Chinese ambassador on a weekend in May.
Alejano also hit the seeming uncertainty of Cayetano as regards the number of protests the government had filed against China when the latter responded during a congressional hearing “maybe 50 to 100” protests.
“The information coming to us is that only one diplomatic protest was filed by the government, and it was done in haste to prepare for the hearing in the House of Representatives,” Alejano said.
He added Cayetano was justifying “the meaning of diplomatic protest that if you say something against the direction of China it’s already a protest.”
Meanwhile, the DFA has kept mum on a video footage where Chinese coast guards were seen taking fishes from the Filipino fishermen in the Philippines’ maritime territory.
In a comment sought for hours, DFA acting spokesman Elmer Cato said they would “respond to requests for statements, reactions, clarifications, etc,” as soon as they got necessary clearance that would allow the Philippines to respond.
“We will respond to requests for statements, reactions, clarifications, etc that are posted here as soon as we have the information and necessary clearance to allow us to respond,” Cato said.
Sought again for reaction this Saturday, but the question fell on deaf DFA officials’ ears.
The DFA has been quiet on any foreign-related issues, particularly on China’s continuous militarization in the disputed South China Sea.
During the Congress hearing, Cayetano admitted there were incidents of Filipino fishermen being harassed by China in the fishing ground at Scarborough Shoal.
However, instead of explaining the incident, Cayetano insisted the situation in Scarborough Shoal was better now than the tension during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III and former DFA secretary Albert del Rosario.
Several Filipino fishermen have alleged in television interviews that the Chinese Coast Guard had made a habit of taking their catch.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Friday dismissed the video footage, explaining he did not actually see any bullying by Chinese Coast Guards.
“If established, it’s a ground for protest. I have asked GMA 7 to authenticate it, but the video that I saw was inconclusive. I didn’t actually see any bullying,” Roque said.
“Anyway,” he added, “I asked the fishermen for their written statement.”
Maritime expert and University of the Philippines professor Jay Batongbacal rejected Roque’s comment, saying his belief that there was no bullying done by the Chinese men in the video footage was “impertinent.”
Batongbacal said such action by the Chinese coast guard was not bullying but it was “robbery or piracy.”
“Government states that there is no bullying is impertinent. The fish caught are already the fishermen’s property, and it has been taken without their consent by armed men. That’s robbery or piracy, not bullying,” Batongbacal said.
He added it was a dismay the government was too quick to defend the Chinese Coast Guard and doubt its own people.
He also rejected the request of Roque for authentication.
“The need for authentication and written statement is likewise impertinent given the video evidence and news report. It demonstrates government reluctance to act on the grievances of its own fishermen vs China despite the evidence before it,” Batongbacal said.
He said that that China’s persistent action in the disputed sea demonstrated the Philippines’ ineffectiveness of the government’s actions.
In a statement, Del Rosario, on the other hand, said the President’s recent admission that he was unaware that Filipino troops guarding Ayungin Shoal had been harassed by Chinese forces showed he needed “a fuller briefing from his people.”
“Of utmost primacy is the protection of the hard-earned gains of the Filipino people as handed down by the … arbitral tribunal,” he said.
“Our President may want to consider having his people closely coordinate with the acting Chief Justice on matters related to the South China Sea,” he added.
He said the Philippines could work on a proposed UN resolution urging China and the rest of the world to respect the decision of the arbitral tribunal.
Over the past years, China has claimed some of the features of the disputed South China Sea particularly the Philippine-owned-reefs-turned-islands in the Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys) where Beijing has installed weapon system in the region.
The reclamation in the South China Sea started when a standoff happened between the Philippines and China after Manila caught Beijing for catching live turtles and other resources within the country’s territory.
China’s activities over the disputed sea have become more visible when the Philippines filed a case before the Arbitral Tribunal and ruled in favor of Manila three years after declaring Beijing’s nine-dash line claim as excessive and illegal.
The Philippines has won an arbitration case against China on July 12, 2016, invalidating Beijing’s nine-dash line of its so-called Chinese ancient map.
China, on the other hand, slammed the order and said it would not recognize the Tribunal ruling stressing that its claim to the sea is “indisputable”.
Manila’s arbitration case is limited to determining the role of historic rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea and did not tackle territorial ownership.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s mandate is limited to the interpretation or application of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.
Duterte set aside the ruling in order to forge better ties with China, but vowed to raise it at a proper time—the exact timeline was not disclosed—during his presidency which ends in 2022.