‘There is nothing we can do’: Philippines powerless to stop China building in disputed waters, Manila says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 7:37pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 December, 2016, 10:29pm

The foreign minister of the Philippines conceded Friday that it is powerless to do anything about China’s installation of weapons on disputed reefs in the South China Sea.

“There is nothing we can do about that now,” Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters in Singapore where he is accompanying President Rodrigo Duterte on a state visit.

“We cannot stop China at this point in time, and say, ‘Do not put that up’,” Yasay said, adding, “We will continue to pursue peaceful means at which all of these can be prevented.”

In a separate statement, his department’s spokesman Charles Jose called on all parties concerned “to refrain from taking any action that would raise tension in the region and further complicate the situation”.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that if the reports of new weapons emplacements are true, “it is a big concern for us and the international community who use the South China Sea lanes for trade”.

“It would mean that the Chinese are militarising the area, which is not good,” he added.

Earlier this week, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said satellite information showed what appeared to be anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on all seven artificial islands that China has built on reclaimed land in the South China Sea.

Yasay said countries like the United States and Japan concerned with freedom of navigation and over-flight rights in the South China Sea can “take whatever action is necessary in pursuit of their national interest”, but the Philippines must pursue its own national interests.

“For the Philippines, we have our bilateral engagements with China. We want to make sure that there will be no further actions that will heighten the tensions between the two countries, particularly in the Scarborough Shoal,” he said, referring to another feature disputed between Manila and Beijing.

On July 12, a landmark ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidated China’s nine dash-line claim over almost the entire South China Sea, while also criticising Chinese reclamation activities in the disputed areas.

Yasay said the Philippines, under China-friendly President Rodrigo Duterte who came to power in June, has opted to place that favourable ruling on the “back burner” in exchange for revitalizing its relations with China.

“We will continue to engage China in so far as the other aspects of our relationship is concerned – trade, investment, people-to-people contact, cooperation, infrastructure development and other such assistance that will have no strings attached,” he said.

By building confidence with China, he said “we can later on go back into the issue of our dispute with the South China Sea through peaceful resolution.”

At the same time, the Chinese and Philippine coast guards met for the first time on Friday and agreed to move forward on maritime cooperation, officials said.

In a joint statement, the coast guards said possible areas for cooperation included fighting drug trafficking and other maritime crimes, environmental protection and search and rescue.

“This is a milestone because it opened the communication lines between the two agencies involved in the (South China Sea),” Philippine coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said.

Balilo said territorial issues were not discussed, but the meeting was a “confidence-building measure” resulting from Duterte’s trip to China in October.

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, angered China by asking the UN-backed tribunal to outlaw Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.

Philippine ambassador to China Jose Santiago Santa Romana said “sensitive” issues would be tackled separately.

“It will be discussed using quiet diplomacy as well as high-level diplomacy,” Santa Romana told ABS-CBN television.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse