WATCH | ‘We can’t tell them to stop’: Lorenzana admits China still improving South China Sea structures

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The new Chinese helipad in the Paracel Islands (image from News5 video)

MANILA, Philippines — Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged knowing of China’s continuing improvement of structures on manmade islands in the South China Sea but said the government “will leave it at that.”

The continuing work on structures, captured in images taken by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, include a new helipad in the Paracel Islands and a new building and wall on North Island.

Lorenzana also mentioned improvements on structures on Subi and Mischief Reefs.

Sinabi nila na walang additional reclamation, wala na silang pupuntahang reefs and shoals na ire-reclaim nila at gagawin nilang island. Hindi naman nila sinabi na ititigil ang pagi-improve sa pag-reclaim tulad ng Subi Reef Mischief Reef at isa pa, we will leave it at that, hindi naman natin sila mautusan na tigilan nila,” Lorenzana said.

(They said there’s no additional reclamation, there are no more reefs and shoals to reclaim and build into islands. They never said they would stop improvements on the reclaimed territories like Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and one other, we will leave it at that, we can’t order them to stop.)

“They’re just silent on that so we assume they are continuing to improve what they reclaim,” he added.

However, President Rodrigo Duterte has chosen to tread softly on the territorial dispute and refused to invoke the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that recognized the Philippines’ claims over China’s.

Malacañang on Friday chose to take a tactful stance on the matter of the passage of the United States destroyer USS John S. McCain close to the contested Mischief [Panganiban] Reef in the Spratly Islands west of Palawan.

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “We’re not the spokesman for the Chinese … we state our own position.”

Sec. Abella added that discussions on reclamations, island building and militarization would best be tackled at succeeding ASEAN meetings and forums if the accusations bear out to have basis. The reports, he said, have to be scrutinized for accuracy in order to preserve the interest of the claimant nations, such as between Vietnam and China.

Lorenzana did mention that his office would also ask the Department of Foreign Affairs headed by Sec. Alan Peter Cayetano to “protest while they (Chinese) are continuing this improvement.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano had acknowledged leaving out the arbitral ruling and blocking the use of the terms “non-militarization” and “land reclamation” in the joint communiqué issued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations at the end of its recent ministerial meeting.

He also voiced resentment at a call by Australia, Japan and the United States to enforce the arbitral ruling and for a legally binding code of conduct in the vital sea lanes, saying: “The problem of territorial dispute is between Philippines and China. We expect nations not to tell us what to do.” (With a report from Maricel Halili)

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