Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler
MANILA, Philippines – Why should he risk warmer ties with China for a lowly sandbar in the West Philippine Sea?
This was President Rodrigo Duterte's response when asked if he would protest the presence of Chinese ships in Sandy Cay, a sandbar near Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
"Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?" said Duterte on Monday night, August 21, during a dinner with media at the Malacañang grounds.
Supreme Court (SC) Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier described the presence of Chinese ships as "invasion of Philippine territory."
Duterte, however, said the incident does not count as invasion and that the Chinese ships are there to "patrol" since "we are friends."
"Anong invade? Hindi naman totoo 'yung sinasabi na ano (What invade? It's not true, what they are saying). They are just there but they are not claiming anything," said Duterte.
He received assurance from Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua and China's Foreign Ministry that Beijing will not build any structures in Sandy Cay. This, for the moment, is enough for him.
"China assured me that they will not build anything there. I called the Ambassador, I said, when I read – (They said) 'We will assure you that we are not building anywhere there,'" said Duterte.
He also ruled out filing a diplomatic protest, as suggested by Carpio. (READ: Ex-DFA chief hits Duterte over 'selling' West PH Sea islands)
As to the claim that the Chinese ships prevented a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) vessel from approaching Sandy Cay, Duterte said this is false.
"That is not true. China would not do that," said Duterte.
Sandy Cay's importance
Carpio, in a statement, explained why Sandy Cay is not just any sandbar. Dredging by China of nearby Subi Reef caused pulverized corals to drift toward this sandbar, making it appear permanently above water at high-tide – a feature called a high-tide elevation.
As such, Sandy Cay is now land or territory "capable of sovereign ownership with its own territorial sea and territorial airspace," said Carpio.
Why would China want to claim Sandy Cay?
Carpio wrote, "If China acquires sovereignty over Sandy Cay, it can now claim Subi Reef as part of the territorial sea of Sandy Cay, legitimizing China's claim over Subi Reef and removing Subi Reef from the continental shelf of the Philippines."
Told about this, Duterte said Carpio was only "speculating" but that any attempts by China to claim Sandy Cay would lead to a confrontation.
"Well, we can always do it also. [Carpio] is speculating. We can also speculate that, one day, if they do that, sandbar 'yan na malapit sa atin, eh 'di mag-away na (it's a sandbar near us, so let's fight)," said the President.
He will only continue to "believe" in China if it does not violate the "agreement" with the Philippines – that Filipino fishermen be allowed to fish in the West Philippine Sea and that China refrain from building any structures on islands or features being claimed by the Philippines.
But if there is a violation and the Philippines confronts China, Duterte will not invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States which requires its military to come to the aid of the Philippines.
"I will not call on America. I have lost trust in the Americans," said Duterte. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.