MANILA, Philippines — (UPDATE 3 – 12:40 p.m.) President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration was taken to task on Tuesday, February 6, for seeming to shrug off China’s militarization of the South China Sea.
The criticism came a day after presidential spokesman Harry Roque, asked to react to photos published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer that show work on Chinese military installations constructed on reclaimed land in the disputed territories almost complete, 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.”
Among those who spoke out against the government’s stance was Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who has staunchly maintained that the Philippines should assert its claim over territory within what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
Carpio was also intimately involved with the suit the country, under then President Benigno Aquino III, filed and won against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
However, President Rodigo Duterte has chosen to set aside the decision in favor of fostering closer relations with China, from whom it has also sought loans to fund its ambitious P8.59-trillion “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.
The magistrate warned that the country “may be deemed under international law to have waived or abandoned its sovereignty or sovereign rights” if it failed to assert its rights.
“A policy of appeasement by the Philippines will only embolden China to further militarize its artificial islands in the Spratlys,” Carpio said in a statement.
“Any statement from the Philippines that it cannot stop China from militarizing its artificial islands, or from undertaking new reclamations, is actually telling China to proceed because the Philippines will not stand in the way,” he said. “At the very least the Philippines should protest, and keep on protesting, to preserve its sovereignty and sovereign rights.”
The Bagong Alyansang Makabayan accused the government of embarking on a “subservient foreign policy” by allowing itself to be “held hostage by foreign loans” from China while turning a blind eye to its reclamation and construction of military facilities in disputed territory.
For his part, Liberal Party president, Senator Francis Pangilinan, said they were “deeply troubled instead of expressing outrage, Malacañang displayed a nonchalant attitude in playing down China’s militarization of the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.
“The Duterte regime has refused calls to protest China’s military build-up in the disputed islands, relying instead on the non-existent ‘good faith’ of Duterte’s Chinese benefactors,” Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said.
Roque also attempted to foist the blame for the militarization on the Aquino government, saying: “Those islands were reclaimed during even the time of the former administration.”
The huge loans have prompted warnings the country’s foreign debt could balloon to disastrous levels.
“The Philippine government’s reliance on loans from China to fund an ambitious infrastructure program has severely undermined our claims to the disputed islands,” Reyes said. “The Philippine government is not even making full use of the legal victory won at The Hague.”
Pangilinan said it was disturbing to hear Roque “relying on China’s mere words that it would not reclaim new islands, thus, we can sleep soundly at night. It’s like telling Filipinos not to worry because while China constructed a building, it would only stay on the ground floor.”
“Since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented and ecologically devastating dredging and island-building at all seven of the features it occupies in the Spratly Island, creating nearly 1,300 hectares of land. How can we trust it to stop its aggression this time?” the senator asked.
Ifugao Representative Teddy Baguilat also pointed out that “China has long proven that it cannot be trusted” and has “consistently violated our territory while the government turns a blind eye to these incursions in exchange for Chinese loans.”
He joined calls for the administration “to disclose in full the loan terms of any Chinese funds that are supposed to be used for the build build build campaign.”
At the same time, Baguilat wondered “why we will embrace Chinese loans and yet shun aid and grants that are conditioned simply on human rights and rule of law,” an apparent reference to assistance from the European Union, which the administration has said it would reject.
Early into his presidency, Duterte had promised to pursue an “independent foreign policy” and appeared to distance himself from long-time Philippine ally, the United States, although this was mostly fueled by his dislike for then President Barack Obama’s criticism of alleged extrajudicial killings in his aggressive war on drugs, and worked hard to build better ties to China and Russia.
But Reyes noted that, “while the Philippine government builds foreign-funded bridges and ports, it will be ceding our islands, waters and resources to China.”
“It is a shameful situation,” he said.
Reyes said the Filipino people “can and must protest China’s military build up. The people can and must protest the Duterte regime’s subservience.”