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Duterte's remarks a recognition of Chinese control over SCS —expert

President Rodrigo Duterte's comments that China “is already in possession” of the South China Sea imply that the Philippine government recognizes Beijing's control over the disputed waters, a maritime law expert said Saturday.

Duterte, on Thursday, expressed his aversion to holding military drills in the South China Sea, whose features and waters are contested in part or in whole by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and China.

“No because... I said China is already in possession. It’s now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions, strong military activity that will prompt a response from China?” the President said. 

For UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director Jay Batongbacal, however, Duterte should not be making those kinds of statement.

"The supposed recognition of China's alleged possession would imply that the Philippine government is recognizing that China has control over the entire sea area, and control means following the rules, being subject to the rules of that state which is in control that is why that's statement cannot be allowed to stand," Batongbacal said in a news forum at UP Hotel in Quezon City.

"For the President to say that China is in possession of this, is not only wrong but also contrary to international law and Philippine law," the maritime law expert said.

According to Batongbacal, no state can claim possession of any sea area under the International law.

"They can only assert claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A  state is only entitled to a 12-nautical mile territorial sea and that is the only area of the ocean within its sovereignty," he said.

The Philippines had sued China before the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 because of China's repeated aggression against Filipino fishermen and Beijing's incursions by conducting reclamation activities within the Philippines' EEZ (exclusive economic zone).

The Hague-based international arbitral court  invalidated in 2016 China's nine-dash-line claim, covering almost the entire South China Sea.

Moreover, Batongbacal said that Duterte's remarks will discourage other countries from enforcing defense treaties in the event of conflict since "other countries will not defend us if we don’t defend ourselves."

Duterte's statement that "frictions" with China should be avoided is encouraging other countries not to interfere with China's supposed possession of the area.

Time and time again, Duterte says China is effectively in control of some of the features in the strategic waterway as he warned of a potential “bad miscalculation” as a result of “friction” between China and other nations with interests in the South China Sea. —LBG, GMA News