Senate President green lights West Philippine Sea inquiry

Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III affirmed on Monday that concerned government agencies are on the ball in the brewing West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue, but said he would rather that senators take up the matter with concerned authorities in closed-door sessions.

In an interview on Monday, Sotto, however, sidestepped a query about any shift in the Duterte administration’s “policy of appeasement” with rival claimant China in the contested WPS territories.

“I don’t know if I am authorized to say so, but I know for a fact that the government, the Armed Forces are addressing it, but they are not informing the public,” Sotto said, adding: “It’s better that we do not discuss it [in public].”

When asked if he would give the greenlight on the minority senators’  bid for the Foreign Relations Committee to conduct a committee hearing to get updates on the brewing WPS territorial issues, Sotto replied: “Yes, of course; why not?”

But Sotto quickly clarified “there are things that I think should be asked during executive session,” meaning this would be taken up behind closed doors.

The Senate leader, likewise, parried questions on whether the senators are satisfied with the Duterte administration’s handling of the WPS issue with China and other rival claimants in the contested territories.

“It is really a very touchy subject, insofar as diplomacy is concerned,” the Senate President said, adding: “Hindi naman tayo pwede magpa-api, pero hindi naman tayo pwedeng maging agresibo  [We can’t afford to be passive, yet can’t also put up an aggressive stance in dealing with the issue].”

Sotto confides there are “unreported” steps being taken by the Philippine government that remain confidential “to ensure we are not disadvantaged,” but he did not go into details.

“So, alam kong may mga pailalim na aksyon ang ating bansa  para tayo ay hindi naman maapi, pero mayroon din tayong ‘above-board’ approach na kinakausap natin at kinakaibigan natin ang mga maaring maging kaaway. Mas mabuti na walang kaaway. Sa mundo natin ngayon...[our officials have taken some steps so the country may not be placed at the losing end, but such steps should be kept under wraps since we know we’re establishing ties with a country who could also turn up be a potential enemy. But it’s best we remain on friendly terms with every nation since] globalization is all over, we cannot afford to have enemies. So as they say, when people talk, the guns are silent,” the Senate President added.

Nothing lost

Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana, meanwhile, maintained that the country never lost any territory to China, rejecting the results of a survey that showed Filipinos wanted the Duterte administration to regain full control of the Chinese-occupied islets in the WPS.

The defense chief said the country still occupies the nine islets that it has held in the territory that Beijing disputes, and not an inch of the territory has been taken over by China.

“What islands will we retake in the first place? Did China take any of our occupied nine islands? No. We are still in control and in occupation,” Lorenzana stated.

While China has reclaimed several islands, the defense secretary said that these man-made features were originally underwater reefs that were developed by Beijing into military bases.

“The Chinese never took any of our occupied islands. They took over unoccupied reefs and turned them into islands. Had we been wiser, we could have occupied those reefs as well when we occupied the nine islands in the 70s,” he said.

While Beijing already exercises a de facto control of the Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, Lorenzana said the country never lost an island under the Duterte administration.

“While Panatag is under the effective control of the Chinese, our fishermen could fish in the area,” he said.

A recent survey showed that 9 out of 10 Filipinos wanted the government to take full control of the islands that are held by China, but Lorenzana said the way the questions were framed are wrong.

He said all of those asked should have responded unanimously and not only 9 out of 10 agreed with the idea.

“So there are 10 percent who disapproves of the idea that we get back control? Who are these people? Why do they not want us to have a full control of the West Philippine Sea?” he said.

“If I were to make a survey I would separate the two: Whether I want control of the WPS and do you approve of the government’s action? Here I would explain what the Duterte administration found when it assumes office, and what is obtaining now in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

Still, the defense secretary could not say how the government could regain full control of the WPS, which he said was not a “sovereign territory” of the country.

“How do you resolve the issue with a regional power that is ready to defend its interest militarily? It is easy to say let us assert our rights and sovereignty. Question is how? But first, was there sovereignty violated? We have the sovereign right to exploit the resources, but the WPS is not our sovereign territory,” he said.

“Panatag Shoal, thanks to the arbitral ruling, is now the fishing ground not exclusively of the Filipinos but of Chinese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese as well,” Lorenzana added.

 

 

 

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Butch Fernandez is BusinessMirror’s senior political reporter based at the Senate. He has covered Malacanang (3 presidencies), the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, local governments and defense since 1984.

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