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PRESIDENT Duterte has a truly difficult task with regards to a group of islands in the South China Sea west of Palawan. Collectively known as the Kalayaan islands, they include Pagasa (37.2 hectares), Likas (18.6 hectares), Parola (12.7 hectares), Lawak (7.93 hectares), and Kota (6.45 hecares). Filipino fishermen live there today; they have been on Lawak since 1970.
Five other islands are smaller – Patag, Panata, Rizal, Balagtas, and Ayungin, less than a hectare each. It was on Ayungin that that we grounded an old World War II-vintage transport ship in 1995 to serve as headquarters of Philippine troops in that remote outpost.
Last April 6, President Duterte ordered the military to send more troops to the islands and upgrade existing facilities. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the President wants barracks for the troops, water and sewage disposal systems, power generators, and shelters for fishermen.
China immediately reacted to President Duterte’s order. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying declared China is resolved to “firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty, its maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea. She said she hoped the Philippines will “continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China and work with us to maintain the sound and steady growth of China-Philippines relations.”
The problem here is that China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea enclosed by a nine-dash line from what it called an ancient China map. Inside this nine-dash line looping around the sea are all the islands now occupied by the Philippines, along with those occupied by other Southeast Asian nations, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. Even Scarborough Shoal, which is only 150 miles west of Zambales, well within our 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, is within the Chinese nine-dash loop.
President Aquino in 2012 issued an executive order establishing the “West Philippine Sea” to include the Kalayaan islands, Scarborough, and the country’s EEZ. The next year, in 2013, he raised the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, and in 2016, it ruled that the nine-dash line is without legal basis. But China does not recognize the ruling and continues to claim sovereignty over all the disputed islands to this day.
Right now, we cannot say where this is all going to lead. Neither side is going to yield. We have an international court ruling on our side while China claims sovereignty on the basis of an ancient map. We can only express our hope that President Duterte who has been able to develop close ties with China in the few months that he has been in office will somehow find a way out of the impasse and carry on our improving relations with China and other neighbors in our part of the world.