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Gov't vows to defend West Philippine Sea despite pandemic

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The government vowed to defend its sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (WPS) even as it grapples with the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) health crisis.

In a virtual presser, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque expressed support for the move of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to file two diplomatic protests against China for violating international law and Philippine sovereignty.

Yung filing of diplomatic protest, ginagawa po ‘yan basta kinakailangan gawin. Ke Covid, ke wala, tayo po ay mananatili na poprotektahan at itataguyod ang ating national territory at ang ating sovereign rights (The filing of diplomatic protest, we will file them if they need to be filed. With or without Covid, we will continue to protect and defend our national territory and sovereign rights),” Roque said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the Philippines filed two protests against China for pointing a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship and declaring a Philippine territory as part of Hainan province near the Philippine-occupied Rizal Reef in the Kalayaan Island Group on Feb. 17.

Roque defended the government’s move amid criticism questioning the timing of the filing of two diplomatic protests amid the pandemic.

“Kung kinakailangan mag protesta gagawin po natin ‘yan (If there is a need to file a protest, we will do that). We need to do the correct thing even if it’s unpopular. Hindi po popularity contest kung anong dapat gawin ng DFA pagdating po sa usaping national territory (What the DFA does when it comes to national territory should not be a popularity contest),” he said.

He said he has not heard of reports of reclamation in the disputed territories but expressed hope China would fulfill its promise to stop reclamation activities in the disputed waters.

“Wala po akong nakalap na balita na gumagawa po sila ng mga bagong imprastraktura pero uulitin ko po na ang pangako po ng Tsina na tayo po ay umaasa na tutuparin nila, wala pong bagong reclamation na gagawin (I have not heard of reports that they’re constructing new infrastructure but I am hopeful that China will fulfill its promise that there should be no further reclamation activities),” he said.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands invalidated China's nine-dash line, a geographical marker Beijing invoked to assert its extensive claims in the strategic waters.

The tribunal decided in favor of the Philippines’ arbitration case filed against China in 2013 but Beijing rejected it as null and void.

No proof China violated international law

Roque, meanwhile, shrugged off Senator Risa Hontiveros’ call asking China to shoulder Philippine expenses in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said there is “no proof” that China should be liable to pay reparations to injured states over its failure to promptly notify the world of the outbreak as required by the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Bilang isang propesor din ng international law, yung issue po ng state responsibility depende po ‘yan kung mapapatunayan na merong nilabag na obligasyon ang Tsina either be it treaty-based or customary-based na obligasyon sa international law (As a professor of international law, the issue of state responsibility will depend on whether there is proof that China violated obligations either be it treaty-based or customary-based obligations in international law),” he said.

Roque also pointed out that China would most likely reject any possible arbitration to take place concerning the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Ang pinaka importanteng katanungan, sinong tribunal ang magdedesisyun ng ganyan dahil ang world court po, ang International Court of Justice, ay may hurisdiksyon lang ‘yan sa mga bansa na tumanggap ng hurisdiksyon ng korteng ito at hindi po tinatanggap ng Tsina ang hurisdiksyon ng ICJ at hindi rin tingin ko papayag ang Tsina sa kahit na anong arbitration (The most important question is which tribunal would make the decision because the International Court of Justice only has jurisdiction in states that accept their jurisdiction and China doesn’t. I think China would not allow any arbitration),” he said.

Asked if the Philippines would hold China accountable for Covid-19, Roque said it would depend on whether there is enough evidence.

“Depende kung merong napatunayang paglabag sa obligasyon ang Tsina. Sa ngayon po, wala pa akong nalalaman na paglabag ng obligason ng Tsina (It would depend on whether there is proof that China violated international obligations. At present, I do not know of any obligation violated by China),” he said.

Hontiveros said China should pay the Philippines’ Covid-19 response as reparation for the country’s losses due to China’s damage of Philippine reef ecosystems for over six years now, estimated at over PHP200 billion.

She said the money, which is past due, could go to government efforts in fighting the pandemic.

The Chinese Embassy, however, dismissed Hontiveros’ statement as “ridiculously absurd and irresponsible” as China and the Philippines are both working to curb transmission of the highly-infectious disease.

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