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WEST PHILIPPINE SEA

PRIVILEGE SPEECH OF REP. GARY C. ALEJANO ON THE WEST PHILIPPINE SEA

House of Representatives

September 25, 2017, Monday

Mr. Speaker, my esteemed colleagues, and our countrymen, a pleasant day to everyone. I rise on a matter of personal and collective privilege in connection with the West Philippine Sea.

It is becoming more and more evident that the Duterte administration is adopting a strategy of silence, inaction, and subservience in dealing with the West Philippine Sea issue.

SILENCE. Four months ago, I reported in this chamber the harassment of Chinese Navy forces against our fishermen in Union Bank, an atoll located in the center of Spratlys Islands. More recently, I also shared before this body the incursions of Chinese flotilla in a sandy cay near Pag-asa Island, an area controlled by the Philippine government in the West Philippine Sea. We did not hear any of these incidents being reported by concerned government agencies considering the seriousness and public interest on the matter. It is only when these incidents have already gone public that we heard their statements, unfortunately, only to downplay them.

Just recently, the DFA Secretary, no less, said that the presence of Chinese military and fishing vessels near the Pag-asa Island “does not mean anything”. Can you tell that to our fishermen who by mere sight of gigantic Chinese vessels scamper in fear? I do not think that is what our fishermen are hoping to hear from the government.

There have been harassment incidents against our fishermen yet we hear nothing. They are being prevented to fish in the waters of the West Philippine Sea freely yet we hear nothing. Filipino fishermen, mga kababayan po natin, are the ones taking the brunt of Chinese intimidation and aggression in the area yet we hear nothing. What we have here is a deliberate concealment of the real situation in the West Philippine Sea. The Duterte administration is either giving us silence or merely downplaying the situation.

INACTION. Despite the continued incidence of Filipino fishermen being harassed by Chinese Coast Guard and Navy, no action has been done by our government to address them. The most recent instance was the Union Bank incident when Chinese Navy fired shots into the air and intimidated Filipino fishermen from dropping anchor and fishing. The incident is an affront to the rights of Filipino fishermen in that area given that the Union Bank is well within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Despite obvious aggression by Chinese forces, the Philippine government has yet to file any form of diplomatic protest.

Another series of incidents which was extensively covered by the media was when our fishermen were prevented by Chinese Coast Guard vessels from entering the lagoon in the Scarborough Shoal last year. This happened for a number of months soon after the arbitral ruling was issued saying that both Filipino and Chinese fishermen have fishing rights over the area. However, the President chose to set aside the arbitral ruling resulting to greater disadvantage for our fishermen.

Scarborough Shoal remains in the same situation. There are still Chinese Coast Guard vessels circling the shoal to regulate and prevent any entrance into the lagoon. Again, the Philippine government chooses not to file any diplomatic protest to raise the alarming actions of Chinese forces. In fact, the Duterte administration chooses to adopt a strategy of not filing diplomatic protest without even taking into consideration the seriousness of incidents or any threat to national security that may arise.

From its very name, a diplomatic protest is a non-provocative and non-aggressive manner to convey concerning matters to another sovereign nation. At the very least, a note verbale would have sufficed. Instead, this administration is giving us intangible assurances to trust them, as they try to veer away public attention on the West Philippine Sea issue.

SUBSERVIENCE. It appears that what China wants, Philippines does. Take for instance the decision of President Duterte to declare Scarborough Shoal as a marine sanctuary, turning it to a no-fishing zone. At first glance, it seems to be an appropriate action, but here is the catch. President Duterte could forbid our own fishermen from fishing in Scarborough Shoal. However, could he ask China to do the same and compel it to respect the unilateral decision to make Scarborough Shoal a marine sanctuary? The decision of the President effectively supports and even strengthens the Chinese Coast Guard’s blockade in Scarborough Shoal.  This is an act of subservience being packaged to the public as marine environmental protection. This is an act to favor China’s intentions in the area.

Another case is the rehabilitation of Pag-asa Island. The Duterte administration has announced its plan to start immediately the rehabilitation of the said island, particularly the improvement of the airstrip and other facilities. We have yet to see any progress months after it was ordered by the President. What is the reason behind the delay on the rehabilitation efforts? Is the Philippine government being prevented by China? Is the government deliberately delaying the rehabilitation to appease China?

There have been speculations that the recent presence of Chinese flotilla and the flight over that they conducted in a sandy cay near Pag-asa Island is to discourage the planned construction in Pag-asa. That is not a remote possibility especially after Chinese forces once tried to drive away even our top brass defense and military officials from entering Pag-asa Island.

Even more alarming is the information which I received that our troops are being advised to limit aerial reconnaissance in the area. This is a clear indication that China is preventing us from strengthening our presence in Pag-asa Island. Moreover, this is an affront to our military. They are being discouraged from performing their mandate of protecting our territory.

We could wait further on how the rehabilitation plan would map out in the succeeding months. However, given the recent developments, or the lack thereof, on the rehabilitation of Pag-asa Island, it seems that the Philippines is once again being subservient to the dictates of China.

CONCLUSION

West Philippine Sea Strategy. Instead of a strategy of silence, inaction, and subservience, what this representation demands is a clear and comprehensive strategy on the West Philippine Sea. During the budget deliberations it was revealed that no such strategy exists. There should be a strategy that includes all stakeholders, government officials, military, coast guard, local government units, and most importantly the fisher folks. For all we know, there are incidents of harassment and intimidation that were unreported precisely because stakeholders do not know what to do and are not informed on what actions to take.

Government officials would say that matters are being discussed in the bilateral consultation mechanism that Philippines and China are adopting. The question is, do the closed-door meetings or talks at the higher level reach the stakeholders on the ground facing the daily situation? They would also usually say that there are confidential matters that should not be compromised and released to the public. All these considerations and challenges could be addressed if we have a comprehensive strategy.

We are going to deal with the West Philippine Sea issue for many years ahead given the number of parties involved and the high stakes on it. The West Philippine Sea is a long-term issue that requires a strategy.

  • Make use of diplomatic means. No one is asking for a war. Thus, I do not understand why President Duterte keeps on bringing up going into war when all we want is to ensure that our national interests are given utmost consideration. The point here is that we should make use of diplomatic, non-military, and non-aggressive means to protect our fellow countrymen and to assert our rights according to international laws.
  • Provide budget to the protection of territories. Congress is given the opportunity, through the national budget, to set the direction and programs of the government. Let us make use of this opportunity to protect our national interests. Amid the territorial dispute, this representation sees the importance of having a budget earmarked to the protection of our territories in the West Philippine Sea as well as in the Philippine Rise.

With that, I call on the members of the Committee on Appropriations to support and consider a dedicated budget for the West Philippine Sea and the budget proposal for the research and monitoring facility in the Philippine Rise. The budget proposals are not only in response to the ongoing territorial dispute. There is actually a long-term benefit on improving our presence and protecting our territories in the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Rise.

To end this, I would like share what our Secretary of National Defense said when asked on the rapid development of Chinese-occupied Subi Reef. I quote, “A grudging admiration to the Chinese for their resolve and single-mindedness to bolster their claims. I wished we had the same,” end of quote.

This representation wishes the same. The only difference with that of the Chinese is I wish to assert our claims through peaceful and diplomatic means while respecting international laws.

Thank you, Mr. President.