Carpio to Malacañang: Retract statement on China’s ‘legal possession’ of South China Sea or lose arbitral ruling

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 25) — Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio warned that Malacañang must retract its statement on China having “legal possession” of the South China Sea or the Philippines risks turning its back on the 2016 arbitral award that invalidated the East Asian giant’s sweeping claims over the hotly contested area.

“The moment you say that China is in legal possession, you abandon the ruling, you contradict the ruling and you give China an ammunition to demolish our ruling,” Carpio told CNN Philippines’ The Source on Thursday.

He said President Rodrigo Duterte has a duty to disown the statements of his spokesperson, Salvador Panelo, who said Tuesday that China has “legal possession” of the South China Sea.

“There’s such thing as legal possession. As far as they’re concerned sa kanila iyon [that’s theirs.] And they are in possession kasi [because] they can enforce it, iyon ang punto [that’s the point,]” Panelo said.

But Carpio said Panelo should take this back, or at least say that he was joking.

“China will always cite this statement by the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel (Panelo) that the Philippines has submitted that we are in legal possession,” Carpio said.

Panelo, however, did not heed Carpio's call and instead said that his statment on China having "legal possession" of the South China Sea was only an analogy.

"You can still occupy one place and have legal possession. Analogy lang 'yun [It's just an analogy.] What I mean was constructive possession," Panelo said. "He (Carpio) was not listening."

Duterte said during his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday that China is in possession of the South China Sea.

However, this was quickly clarified by a top security official in his Cabinet the day after, claiming that Duterte said the East Asian giant was merely “in position” in those waters.

“Positionally they have a big advantage because they have naval ports in four other islands that were artificial. They have airports that are three kilometers long,” National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon told reporters Tuesday. “So they have the positional advantage right now and they have the equipment to enforce their position.”

Carpio said this is a better statement than Duterte’s, as it does not imply that the Armed Forces were remiss in their duty to protect the country’s territory.

The SC magistrate had earlier rebutted Duterte’s statement right after his SONA, saying that China is only in possession of seven features in the Spratlys, the Scarborough Shoal and Sandy Cay, albeit “illegally.”

Greg Poling of the US-based defense think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said Duterte is possibly the only one who believes that China owns the South China Sea.

Esperon conceded that China has fortified its presence in the West Philippine Sea, a portion of the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines. However, he said the Philippines is also beefing up its position in those waters.

The 2016 arbitral award by the tribunal created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and backed by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration said China’s historical claim over virtually the entire South China Sea is “without lawful effect.”

Beijing has still refused to recognize the award that largely favored Manila. Meanwhile, the Duterte administration has been criticized for supposedly failing to insist on the ruling.

CNN Philippines Digital Producer Alyssa Rola contributed to this report.