OPINION: Duterte’s SONA speech on West Philippine Sea made matters worse for PH



Riding on an 85 percent approval rating, President Duterte probably thought he could convince Filipinos about the wisdom of his much-criticized policy towards China in the matter of the country’s territorial claim in the South China Sea. He devoted a lot of time on the issue of West Philippine Sea in his State of the Nation Address on Monday.

Now his top two security officials – Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon are doing damage control- issuing clarification about the President’s explanation. They are now blaming the President’s pronunciation of the word “position.” They said it’s not “possession” as everybody heard the President say last Monday.

Here’s the problematic portion of Duterte’s statement on West Philippine Sea:

“You know, I cannot go there even to bring the Coast Guard to drive them away. China also claims the property and he is in possession. ‘Yan ang problema. Sila ‘yung in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner. We are claiming the same but we are not in the position because of that fiasco noong dalawang nag-standoff doon during the time of my predecessor si Albert, ambassador. If I’m correct. I do not know his real name. Tayo ang umatras. Pagsabi niya umatras, that was a kind of a compromise. Tayo ang umatras. Noong umatras tayo, pumasok sila. Marami na.

“That day, we lost the Spratly and the Panganiban Island. Iyan ang totoo. Walang bolahan ‘yan. Ngayon, may arbitral ruling. I… I said, I could not even ask for the oil claiming the entire resources of the…”

After Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio corrected Duterte and warned about consequences, Esperon and Lorenzana lost no time and corrected it in a press briefing:

“I think the President did not say that they (China) are in possession, but that they are in position,” Esperon said. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said in a press briefing.

“They have the positional advantage right now and they have the equipment to enforce their position,” Esperon said referring to the Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs where China built artificial islands.

“Nakaposisyon sila sa islands nila, but they are not in possession na pag-aari nila ‘yung West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it,” Lorenzana added.

One serious implication of Duterte’s statement that China is “in possession” of territories being claimed by the Philippine was pointed out by former Ambassador to the United Nations Lauro Baja in an earlier interview with VERA Files.

Baja said in a land or maritime dispute, possession could be a crucial factor. He said China is exercising what the International Court of Justice (ICJ) calls “effectivités.”

“This is the basis of the Court’s decision on the Ligatan Sipadan case where the court awarded the area to Malaysia over Indonesia. Also, the same principle in the case between Chile and Peru and between Nicaragua and Guatemala,” Baja said.

To help save our claim in the South China Sea, we all must pretend we are hard of hearing and we misheard Duterte. Okay, it’s “position”, not “possession.”

It’s not only the word “possession” that needs correction in Duterte’s 2019 SONA.

VERA Files did a quick live fact-check during the SONA and noted that Duterte got two things wrong in the above-mentioned paragraph.

The 2012 stand-off between the Philippine and Chinese Navies was in Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal), not Spratly Islands. Scarborough shoal lies off the coast of the Province of Zambales, while the Spratly Islands is considered by the Philippines as part of the province of Palawan. The two are more than 400 nautical miles apart.

Meanwhile, China occupied Panganiban Reef (international name: Mischief Reef) in 1995, during the time of President Fidel V. Ramos. The Reef is part of the Spratlys.

He mentioned “Albert, ambassador.” He was referring to Albert del Rosario, foreign secretary during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III when China gained control of Scarborough Shoal, about 12 nautical miles from Zambales. Del Rosario was ambassador to the United States during the administration of Gloria Arroyo.

We were very much concerned as we listened to him talk about West Philippine Sea and the Arbitral Court’s ruling on the case filed by the Philippines against China because he was giving out incomplete or misleading information.

We have fact checked some of his misinformation. Check it out in verafiles.org.