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Challenge for the President

Cheers rang out over the news that President Duterte has ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy all islands of the country in the West Philippine Sea.

As we all know, China has been quite busy the past years occupying and building structures to fortify its hold over the territory.

The President’s orders were for the military to build our own structures and raise the Philippine flag within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to maintain our jurisdiction in the area. Duterte even has plans to visit Pagasa Island on Independence Day, June 12, and raise the Philippine flag there.

Based on the President’s instructions, AFP Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año has ordered the deployment of more troops to seven islands and two shoals.

However, Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano contradicted Duterte’s order by saying that the military could no longer occupy any other island in the disputed territory.

Alejano, a former marine, pointed out that assuming there are still uninhabited islands to occupy, new occupation is a violation of the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea in which the Philippines is a signatory.

The military clarified that Duterte’s instructions referred to islands and shoals that have already been under the control of the Philippines and would only be needing rehabilitation. Whatever, Duterte’s order stands for development in the disputed waters long awaited by the Filipinos.

Five years ago, China began blockading the Scarborough Shoal which is clearly within our country’s EEZ, saying it falls under its nine-dash line’s historical ownership of majority of the South China Sea.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s claim last year, and declared that Beijing violated Manila’s rights to fish and explore for resources in the area.

The Holy Week is a time of contemplation for many Filipinos, where each of us can reflect on matters that truly need mending.

Perhaps, the challenge that the President should focus on is how to align his action with the ruling of the arbitral tribunal through an open exchange of views and rationalizations without escalating tensions with China.

Otherwise, all efforts made by Duterte to establish friendly ties with China will be for naught. Yes, we can be friendly with any country but not at the expense of our security and national interest.

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SHORT BURSTS. For comments or reactions, email firingline@ymail.com or tweet @Side_View. Read current and past issues of this column at http://www.tempo.com.ph/category/opinion/firing-line/ (Robert B. Roque, Jr.)