China counters PH officials: Spratlys is ours

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 12) — China maintained its claim on the Spratlys Group of Islands amid strong words from Philippine officials that China "took" what "is ours," and its vessels should leave the West Philippine Sea.

"We have taken note of those remarks made by the Philippine officials," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said in his regular press conference Thursday. He stressed that Spratlys, which China calls Nansha Islands, "are within China's territory, for which we have sufficient historical and legal basis."

The East Asian giant claims almost the entire South China Sea, but the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July 2016 junked its nine-dash line claim and recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in areas within its 200- nautical mile exclusive economic zone, which includes the Spratlys or Kalayaan Island Group. However, China continues to reject the landmark ruling.

"For thousands of years, Chinese fishermen have been fishing in these waters in the South China Sea. Their rights should not be challenged," Lu said.

In a statement Friday, Panelo said the Duterte government agrees the dispute can best be settled through peaceful negotiation, "the arbitral ruling however has already been rendered and we remain steadfast in maintaining our claims with respect to our territory and exclusive economic zones pursuant not only to the said arbitral judgment based on accepted principles of public international law but consistent with the directives of our Constitution and the aspirations of the Filipino people."

He also called on China to "avoid performing acts that will place at risk the Filipino fishermen fishing in the disputed areas and at the same time cause irritants that will disrupt the current friendly relations of the two countries as well as imperil future bilateral negotiations on matters of mutual concern."

He made these statements after a Malacañang press briefing where Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the over 200 Chinese vessels swarming around Pag-asa Island - one of the biggest islands in the Spratlys - "have no business being there" and should go away. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. said he has "fired off (a) salvo of diplomatic notes" against China and Panelo said the government will file a diplomatic protest again once it verifies that there are also some Chinese vessels around Philippine-occupied Kota Island, also known as Loiata Island and nearby Panata Island or Lankiam Cay in the Spratlys.

Earlier, Locsin said he is not afraid of war amid China's actions in the West Philippine Sea. "The stand is that it is ours. And they took it. World's highest court ruled that. Period. Now the question is how to take it back. I personally have no fear of war," he said in a tweet.

When asked about statements from the Philippines, Lu also stressed that China wants disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved through negotiations, adding that Beijing counts on the Philippines to cooperate.

"We hope that the Philippine side can join us in properly managing the South China Sea issue, upholding peace and tranquility on the sea, and bringing more benefits to the two peoples," Lu said.

Despite the presence of its vessels in the West Philippine Sea, Lu described the situation in disputed waters as "generally stable," noting that "steady progress" has been made in the consultations for a code of conduct that will determine the actions claimant countries are allowed to take in contested areas. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the South China Sea which is believed to be rich in resources.

President Rodrigo Duterte has been criticized for pursuing friendlier ties with China despite the long-standing maritime dispute. When asked why the Palace is now giving "stronger" statements on the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea, Panelo said the government "will always assert sovereignty when it is being impaired or assaulted."

Malacañang said the DFA should issue an official statement on Lu's latest remarks.