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China’s sea claim made up: Manila

‘What illegal provocations?’: Delfin Lorenzana at the Australian Security Summit 2018 in Canberra. Picture: Kym Smith

Philippines’ Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has dismissed China’s nine-dash line map — which lays claim to most of the South China Sea — as a “fabrication”, intensifying a maritime dispute with Beijing and highlighting an internal struggle in Manila over how to deal with it.

The two countries have traded barbs in recent days over the Scarborough Shoal after China’s coast guard confiscated fishing equipment near the grounds.

The waters lie within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but were seized by China in 2012, triggering an international arbitration case that invalidated China’s claims over the South China Sea but which Beijing has refused to abide by.

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The Philippines’ foreign ministry lodged a diplomatic protest last week over the “illegal confiscation”, and what it described as China’s persistent and “illicit radio challenges” to its aircraft conducting patrols around the contested Spratly Islands.

But it was China’s counteraccusation — that Philippines’ patrols were “illegal provocations” and an “infringement” on its sovereignty — that sparked the spray from Mr Lorenzana.

“What illegal provocations? That area is within our EEZ. Their so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their nine-line doesn’t exist except in their imaginations,” he said.

“Our fishermen are within our EEZ and likewise our ships and planes conduct patrol sorties within our area.

“They are the ones who have been doing provocations by illegally occupying some features within our EEZ. Hence they have no right to claim they are enforcing their laws.”

A spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte played down the spat, saying it would “not affect the overall good relations between our country and China”, as he pushes for greater Beijing investment and a guaranteed supply of any COVID-19 vaccine.

The comments have underscored frustration and divisions within the administration over how to deal with China’s territorial aggression.

Last month Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin warned China would face the “severest response” should its military exercises “spill over” into Philippines’ territory. Earlier this month, navy chief Giovanni Bacordo accused Beijing of trying to provoke his forces into firing the first shot in a confrontation in his country’s sovereign waters.

On Monday, an army commander told a parliamentary hearing it was being “left to the armed forces” to secure and protect the country’s territorial integrity, and it needed the support and political will of the civilian administration to do so.

The comments raise questions over the strength of Mr Duterte’s presidency at a time when the Philippines is facing twin economic and health disasters.

“Is Duterte getting weaker? In the middle of the worst economic and public health crisis in the Philippines the president is in permanent isolation in Davao, only communicating to the country through prerecorded messages. That is not a sign of strength,” says Malcolm Cook, a visiting senior fellow with Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Dr Cook said divergent approaches in Manila to Chinese aggression was less a “strategically nuanced good cop, bad cop approach” than an attempt by some agencies to work within Mr Duterte’s peaceful coexistence while pushing back against Beijing.

Others believe defence officials have been emboldened by the US backing of the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal decision, which rejected China’s claims over the South China Sea and acknowledged The Philippines’ claim to land features within its EEZ.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper have accused Beijing of disregarding international commitments and bullying neighbours such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan — all of which have conflicting claims in the South China Sea. Many interpret the heightened US rhetoric as part of a push to build a coalition of allies that has become central to its China rivalry.

Additional reporting: AFP

South East Asia Correspondent

Amanda Hodge is The Australian’s South East Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. Previously based in New Delhi, she has lived and worked in Asia for more than a decade covering social and political upheaval fr… Read more

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