Cayetano dares critics: Prove PH lost an island under Duterte and I'll quit

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 29) — The Philippines did not lose a single inch of its territory under President Rodrigo Duterte’s watch, the country’s top diplomat said, even promising to quit public office if proven wrong.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Monday challenged critics to provide evidence that the Duterte administration failed in protecting the country's rights over disputed islands in the South China Sea.

"Ano man ang profession nila (Whatever their profession may be) – justice sila, pulitiko (politician) sila, newsman, journalist – if we lost a single island during Duterte's time, I will pack my bags, go home, and I will not serve the public in any elected or appointed position," Cayetano said in a lengthy speech at his department's flag-raising ceremony.

He said he was reacting to an article he read Sunday, "How many islands do we have?" A column was published on the Philippine Star that day, titled "How many islands does Phl still have?"

Columnist Federico Pascual Jr. said, "A confident China has stepped up its setting up of military installations on artificial islands built in the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone with Duterte looking the other way."

In a landmark ruling on 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, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty both the Philippines and China had signed. China has refused to acknowledge the arbitral ruling and continues to claim the South China Sea in its entirety.

Alejano: We lost Sandy Cay

Opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano on Tuesday responded to Cayetano's statement, saying the country "lost effective control" on Sandy Cay, a sand bar over 2.5 nautical miles west of Pag-asa Island in the South China Sea.

"Secretary Cayetano should be reminded that China seized Sandy Cay during his and Duterte's incumbency," Alejano said in a statement.

Duterte in August 2017 said China has assured him that it will not invade Sandy Cay, amid reports that Chinese vessels are blocking Filipino fishermen there.

Alejano said this is just one case. "In a bigger picture, if our ability to patrol and supply our islands is slowly being diminished, then time will come China will have effective control of the whole West Philippine Sea. We would lose everything."

Cayetano: Gov't protecting country's rights

Cayetano on Monday said not mentioning the words "arbitration award" in public statements is not tantamount to the government not protecting the country's sovereign rights over its EEZ in the West Philippine Sea.

"Lahat ng economic rights ay ipinaglalaban namin (We are fighting for all economic rights)," Cayetano said, mentioning the Filipinos' rights to fish in the area, to secure ecological and environmental protection, right to safe harbor, and oil and gas exploration.

He also reiterated that the government is taking diplomatic actions whenever necessary. Recent Chinese actions on areas within the country's EEZ include the reported presence of two Chinese military planes on Panganiban or Mischief Reef, and China's unveiling of a monument to mark its construction work in Kagitingan or Fiery Cross Reef.

Both are in the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, which is being claimed by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Critics have slammed President Duterte's "defeatist" stance on the long-standing maritime dispute. Duterte has repeatedly said the country cannot afford to go to war against China, but has promised to bring up the arbitral ruling with the Asian giant during his term.