Roque: Julian Felipe Reef not within EEZ

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 11) – Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque on Tuesday claimed Julian Felipe Reef, where around 200 Chinese ships were sighted in March, is not part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, going against statements made by the Defense and Foreign Affairs departments.

"All we're saying is we were never in possession of that area...Ni hindi po 'yan kabahagi ng ating EEZ ha, 'yung Julian Felipe. Labas po 'yan, ganyan po kalayo 'yan [It's not even part of our EEZ. Julian Felipe reef is outside that zone, that's how far it is]," Roque said in a Palace briefing.

This is contrary to the strongly worded statements against China issued earlier by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Both have maintained that the reef - also known as Whitsun Reef and located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan - is within the Philippines' EEZ, where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the ruling by a Hague tribunal.

Both have also demanded China to promptly withdraw its vessels, which later in March spread out to different areas in the West Philippine Sea. The DFA vowed to fire off a diplomatic protest for every day of delay.

While the reef is within 200 nautical miles of the EEZ, Roque said it forms part of the territorial sea generated by two high tide elevations (HTEs) currently occupied by China and Vietnam. But the Philippines has a claim on the reef by the virtue of Presidential Decree 1596 issued in 1978 by then president Ferdinand Marcos.

“Per the 2016 SCS Arbitral Award, these HTEs generate a territorial sea, which is prior to an EEZ under the UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea],” he said in a separate statement. “Felipe Reef, together with the two HTEs that generated the territorial sea, has never been in actual physical possession of the Philippines, albeit made part of the province of Palawan through PD 1596 (1978).”

“At the very least, Julian Felipe Reef should be delimited under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) given the overlaps of maritime zones,” Roque said.

Moreover, Roque claimed it was President Rodrigo Duterte's critics who made a big issue out of the swarming of the Chinese vessels in the area. He also questioned demands for a strong response from the chief executive when, according to him, it is Vietnam and China primarily laying claims to the reef.

"Ang totoong nag-aagawan dyan sa area na 'yan ay Vietnam tsaka ang China. Eh bakit Pilipinas? Bakit si President Duterte ang tinatanong kung anong gagawin niya dyan? Remember, we're not the only claimants there," he said.

[Translation: In truth, the nations fighting over the reef are Vietnam and China. Then why the Philippines? Why ask President Duterte what he's going to do about it? Remember, we're not the only claimants there.]

Aside from the Philippines, ASEAN member states Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and self-governing Taiwan, have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.

But Roque said that the country will still continue to pursue its claim.

“It is in our country’s interest to continuously pursue our claim through diplomacy or in the future, by submitting it to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice,” said Roque in a statement.

'PH-China ties enjoying renaissance under Duterte Admin'

Despite growing tensions over territories, Roque said there has been a rebirth in the bilateral relations between the Philippines and China under the Duterte administration.

"We are now enjoying the renaissance as far as Philippine-Chinese relations is concerned. Hindi po nagkakaroon ng banta sa ating territorial integrity [There have been no threats to our territorial integrity]," he said.

If it weren't for this "warm friendship," Roque said, the East Asian giant may have already driven away the Philippines from all the areas it is claiming in the disputed waters.

Duterte has remained friendly towards Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying Manila owes Beijing a huge debt and that he "wouldn't want trouble with them." In a past briefing, however, Roque said there are limits to the friendly ties, and Duterte will be deploying the country's "gray ships" once Beijing begins oil drilling activities inside Manila's EEZ.

China has repeatedly rejected the 2016 landmark ruling which recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights within its EEZ. Despite raising the arbitration award at the United Nations General Assembly in 2020, Duterte himself also recently downplayed this victory as a "mere scrap of paper," which can be thrown in a wastebasket.