Philippines: Top Diplomat Scolds Duterte Spokesman for Giving Up South China Sea Territory

Julian Felipe Reef is not part of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, claimed Tuesday.

“It’s not even part of our EEZ. Julian Felipe reef is outside that zone; that’s how far it is,” Roque said during a virtual press briefing on May 11.

Julian Felipe Reef is located approximately 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, a municipality of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines an EEZ as “extending 200 nautical miles from shore,” according to the World Trade Organization. Within this zone, “the coastal state has the right to explore and exploit, and the responsibility to conserve and manage, both living and non-living resources.”

“The exclusive economic zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured,” Article 57 of the U.N. convention reads.

Roque’s remark about Julian Felipe Reef on Tuesday contradicts recent statements issued by the Philippine government after the Philippine Coast Guard spotted 220 Chinese fishing boats moored in line formation along the shore of Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on March 21 said the Chinese fleet’s presence at Julian Felipe Reef was “a clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

“These are territories well within [the] Philippine[‘s] exclusive economic zone [EEZ] and continental shelf where Filipinos have the sole right to resources under international law and the 2016 [UNCLOS] arbitral ruling,” Lorenzana said in a statement.

“We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” he added.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. filed a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing on March 21 ordering China to recall its vessels from Julian Felipe Reef. China refused to move its fishing fleet from the reef, though the vessels have largely dispersed from the structure since March, likely into other parts of the Philippines’ maritime territory. The Philippine military said it believed China’s fishing vessels were manned by Chinese maritime militia and ordered sovereignty patrols near Julian Felipe Reef to monitor the fleet’s activity.

Locsin reacted to Roque’s claim that Julian Felipe Reef was not a part of the Philippines’ EEZ in a Twitter statement posted on May 11. Replying to a Tweet linking to an article about Roque’s comments by the Philippine Inquirer, Locsin wrote, “There is only one voice on what’s ours: mine. Period. Not even the military has any say. I speak for the President [Duterte] on this subject.”

Locsin, who often uses Twitter to expand upon his thoughts on many issues, claimed that he had heard of Roque’s comments only upon arriving from a “very early flight” and expressed annoyance that Roque had trodden on his professional territory. Appearing to address Roque, Locsin wrote: “This is my last warning. When it comes to foreign affairs the Department of Foreign Affairs has the exclusive remit. I don’t come from diplomacy; I come from a life that settled the hash of a lotta people who talked tough and ended up biting dirt. I don’t talk, I deal.”

Locsin also declared Roque’s incorrect description of Philippine territory as a “dead story because I say so.”