DND says China presence in West Philippine Sea is like ‘squatting'

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In April, the government heavily protested the swarming of over 200 Chinese vessels around Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, a disputed island that is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 1) — The Department of National Defense (DND) on Thursday insisted that the Philippines owns West Philippine Sea, and China’s presence in the area is tantamount to illegal settling.

“[T]he Philippines has two documents to support its claims versus none for the Chinese. Thus, the Chinese presence in the WPS is akin to somebody squatting on a piece of land owned by someone else,” said the DND statement signed by Spokesperson Arsenio Andolong.

The Defense Department cited the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which states that the Philippines has sovereign rights to areas within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. An international arbitral tribunal constituted under UNCLOS and backed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also recognized the Philippines’ sovereign rights to some areas within its EEZ, invalidating China’s sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

China rejects the landmark ruling and has built artificial islands, blocked Filipino fishermen from fishing, and interfered in oil exploration activities in the West Philippine Sea, which refers to areas the Philippines claims or occupies in the global waterway.

“We are ready to defend our sovereignty and sovereign rights using whatever means available to us,” the DND said.

The statement was issued to clarify the DND's stance on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial statement during his fourth State of the Nation Address that China is “in possession” of the South China Sea. Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged the administration to take it back, saying it "abandons" the Philippines' arbitration victory.

The DND statement explained, “While China may have an advantage in the South China Sea because of its existing structures built on artificial islands, which it has hardened and militarized, it is in position, and to a certain degree, has possession of only a very small part of the South China Sea."

“In the same vein, the Philippines also has possession and position in the West Philippine Sea,” it added. Days after the SONA confusion sparked as National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said Duterte only meant China was "in position" in the South China Sea, but the Palace stressed that the President really said China is "in possession."

“Although several claimant countries are occupying features in the South China Sea, not one of them has complete and sole control over that entire body of water," the DND said.

Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have conflicting claims to the South China Sea. Only Beijing claims the entire ocean and has been accused of militarizing the region.

DND’s statement also comes on the heels of the Philippines' recent diplomatic protest with China on two incidents: the swarming of over a hundred Chinese vessels around Pag-asa Island in the disputed Spratlys last week, and the unauthorized passage of Chinese warships in Sibutu Strait off Tawi-Tawi for a number of times this year.

In April, the government also heavily protested the swarming of over 200 Chinese vessels around Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, a disputed island that is the seat of the Kalayaan municipal government under the province of Palawan. Officials have said majority of these Chinese vessels have withdrawn as of June, but it seems they either returned in July or a new deployment was made.

The presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa prompted strong statements from the Duterte administration, which has been criticized for pursuing friendly ties with China despite the long-standing maritime dispute. The Duterte government invoked the arbitral ruling for the first time as it asked the Chinese vessels to leave the West Philippine Sea.