Roque: We'll thank China someday for artificial islands in disputed Spratly group

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 8) — The day will come when Filipinos will thank China for the artificial islands it built in the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said Wednesday.

"There will come a time when China's might (would have) ceased, when we will have to thank them for those islands," Roque said in an interview posted on his Facebook page Wednesday night.

But that is, if the Philippines can get the Asian giant to leave the area, he added.

"Clearly, eventually, those artificial islands will be ours if we can ask China to leave the islands," he said. "It is only the Philippines that can build those artificial islands, ergo, they had no right to build those artificial islands in the first place." 

In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded to the Philippines areas in the South China Sea that lie within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone, including the Spratly Islands.

However, China has refused to acknowledge the arbitral ruling and continues to claim almost the whole South China Sea. President Rodrigo Duterte has promised to bring up the ruling with China during his term.

Roque reiterated Duterte's stance that the Philippines cannot afford to declare war against China, saying it was best to stay friends with the Asian giant.

"When we took an antagonistic stance against China, my clients -- fishermen from Zambales, Pangasinan -- were not able to fish in Scarborough and now they are able to fish," Roque said.

Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, is one of the islets and reefs in the South China Sea.

Roque also said the Philippine government continues to count on China's promise that it will not conduct new reclamation activity or build any more structures in disputed islands.

The Presidential Spokesman's statement came after the Philippine Daily Inquirer obtained photos reportedly showing that China has "finished transforming seven reefs claimed by the Philippines" in the Spratlys. The photos were taken from June to December 2017, and showed the development of air and naval base structures on the reefs.

It was reported in 2014 that China began began massive dredging operations in seven reefs in the Spratly Islands - Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, Mischief Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, and Johnson South Reef. Satellite images showed the construction of buildings, airstrip, radar facilities and artificial islands.

Analyst: Other countries may see 'flippant' PH attitude as a security threat

A security analyst, meanwhile, has warned the administration's statements on the issue may affect relations between the Philippines and other countries in the region.

Speaking to CNN Philippines' Balitaan analyst Jose Custodio said the government's "flippant attitude" towards the reclamation sends a message not just to Filipinos, but to neighboring countries as well.

"That's the long term implication of that. Our country might be seen by other countries of the region as a security threat already because we're allowing China to militarize the entire area without doing anything," Custodio said.

Aside from the Philippines and China, four other countries have laid claim to parts of South China Sea. These are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Custodio claimed these countries are watching the Philippines.

He said "disturbing" statements from the country's public officials may send the wrong signal to its allies.

"That represents a very flippant attitude towards a very serious security threat not only sa bansa natin [not just to our country] but also to the region," he said.

"Isipin mo, hindi lang yan statements na naririnig ng ating mga tao, ng mga Filipinos. Naririnig rin yan ng mga Vietnamese, mga Indonesians, no, so magataka sila, 'Ano bang balak ng Pilipinas,'" he added.

[Translation: Think about it. These are not just statements heard by our people, by Filipinos. The Vietnamese, the Indonesians also hear it. They'll wonder 'what is the Philippines planning.]

Custodio said in addition to filing a protest, the Philippines should mobilize international public opinion to pressure China to "behave."

He said since the Philippines had filed and won the 2016 arbitration case that ruled China's claims to virtually all of South China Sea as excessive, it should be the one mobilizing the other countries.

READ: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China

"The plan was to mobilize international opinion to pressure China to behave and at the same time to allow countries na to find a way in a common manner, in a united manner how to deal. Hindi yung paisa isa lang no [we can't just do it one by one]," said Custodio.

Meanwhile, Sen. Grace Poe on Thursday said the West Philippine Sea would "freeze over" before China even begins "toying with the idea" of giving the Philippines back the islands.

She likened Roque's "wishful thinking" to saying a homeowner might be thankful if gang intrudes his home and makes it a safehouse, effectively protecting it from other criminals.