Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Thursday strongly rejected China’s demand for the Philippines to remove the grounded Navy ship Sierra Madre on Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, saying Manila has sovereign rights in the area.
“Ayungin lies inside our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in which we have sovereign rights,” Lorenzana said. He noted that the Philippines’ EEZ was awarded to it in 1982 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “which China ratified.”
“China should abide by its international obligations that it is a part of,” Lorenzana stressed.
The defense chief also cited the 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled in favor of the Philippines that the territorial claim of China has no historic or legal basis.
“Ergo, we can do whatever we want there and it is they (China) who are actually trespassing,” Lorenzana said. “We have two documents that we have sovereign rights in our EEZ while they have none, and their claim has no basis,” he added.
Lorenzana said his statements were related to remarks made earlier by China, through its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
Zhao, in a press briefing on Wednesday, said China demands that the Philippines “honor its commitment and remove its grounded vessel” on Ayungin, which Beijing calls Ren’ai Jiao.
He was referring to the BRP Sierra Madre, a still-active Philippine Navy vessel intentionally ran aground on Ayungin in 1999.
“As far as I know, there is no such commitment. That ship has been there since 1999. If there was a commitment it would have been removed a long time ago,” Lorenzana said.
He said he will have to ask people who were in the government at the time regarding the “commitment” that was purportedly made as claimed by China.
In 2014, the government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), also rejected China’s allegation that the Philippines has agreed to pull out of Ayungin.
“The Sierra Madre was placed on Ayungin to serve as a permanent government installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995,” the DFA said in a statement on 14 March of that year.
It noted that Ayungin is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf over which it has sovereign rights and jurisdiction. The ship grounding was made before member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.
The DFA issued the statement after then Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei claimed that the Philippines has agreed to tow the Sierra Madre out of Ayungin.
The exchanges between Lorenzana and Zhao came after the Philippines successfully resumed its resupply mission to the Sierra Madre, which hosts a handful of Filipino troops, on Tuesday.
“This delivery of food and other supplies is a provisional, special arrangement out of humanitarian considerations,” Zhao said.
On Tuesday, Lorenzana said he has been speaking with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the resupply mission since China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels blocked and water-cannoned the boats carrying provisions on 16 November.
Several government officials, including President Rodrigo Duterte, publicly expressed dismay and protested China’s actions at the shoal, a low-tide elevation just 174 nautical miles off mainland Palawan.
Despite Tuesday’s successful resupplying of the Sierra Madre, a CCG vessel was still spotted in the vicinity sending people on a rubber boat to take photos and videos of the mission.
Lorenzana maintained that the Philippines can do whatever it wants within its territory and considers China’s latest acts in the sea “as a form of intimidation and harassment.”
Lorenzana said the resupply boats Unaiza Mae 1 and Unaiza Mae 3 left the Sierra Madre also on Tuesday after unloading their cargo and personnel.
The boats also brought out personnel going home on rest and recreation, he said. “As of now, the situation there is calm and normal,” Lorenzana told reporters.
In a speech at a conference, the Defense chief admitted that the issue in the West Philippine Sea remains the defense and military establishments’ “main concern.”
“China remains aggressive in asserting its claims, seriously challenging our interests in the area,” he said, reiterating his condemnation of the CCG blockade and water bombardment during the first effort to resupply Sierra Madre.
“I told the Chinese ambassador that no one can prevent us from doing what we have to do within the West Philippine Sea where we have sovereign rights by international laws,” he said.
“President Duterte also made a strong statement against this bullying action,” Lorenzana added.
Meanwhile, several senators rejected calls by China for the removal of BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal.
“As a sovereign state we should not get instructions from another government were to dock our vessels within our territory. Ayungin Shoal is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone” Senator Francis Tolentino said in a message to reporters.
His statement was shared by Senator Grace Poe who cited the 2016 arbitral ruling in asserting the Philippines’ claim over the highly contested waters.
“The 2016 arbitral ruling declared that Ayungin Shoal belongs to the Philippines and is well within our exclusive economic zone and continental shelf,” she said in a press statement. “China has no right to dictate what we can do within our waters.”
“Mutual respect must always be the cornerstone of our relationship with any nation,” she added.
Vice President Leni Robredo, for her part, said the Philippines’s sovereign rights over Ayungin Shoal should no longer be a topic for debate.
“It should not be debatable because of the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal. The court ruling has covered it and we should no longer need to have a debate about it,” she said.
“It is clear that Ayungin is within our EZZ. We have sovereign rights over it and Filipinos should exclusively enjoy the resources there,” she added.
with Sundy Locus and Jomelle Garner