Plan to retake Scarborough shelved after Duterte's order vs. 'overly celebrating' Hague win

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The tribunal did not rule on which country has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal but stressed that China violated Filipinos' traditional fishing rights to the area by halting access to the shoal. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 23) — There was a plan to send a contingent of the Philippine Navy to Scarborough Shoal in 2016, but President Rodrigo Duterte warned against "overly celebrating" the Philippines' victory in the arbitration case against China.

This was revealed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in a forum on Friday.

"A week before the ruling was announced, I got this call from [then] Defense Secretary (Ashton Carter) from the U.S. and what he said was the ruling will come out soon and we think it is in your favor. Please exercise restraint,"  Lorenzana recalled.

He said the U.S. call for caution was "very significant." What he did next was to plan to retake Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, one of the islets and reefs in the South China Sea that lie within the country's 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Philippines lost control over Scarborough after a 2012 standoff with China, prompting Manila to file a case for international arbitration.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague largely recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights in its EEZ. But it did not rule on which country has sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, which lies about 120 nautical miles off Zambales.

It said because Scarborough is above water only at high tide, it generates an entitlement to a territorial sea, but not to an exclusive economic zone -- favoring a Philippine position.  The ruling also recognized it as a common traditional fishing ground, and said China interfered with Filipinos' right to fish there by restricting access.

China rejects the arbitral ruling and stands by its sweeping claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

"So I talked to the Philippine Navy and asked them if we can field a small force… maybe if we can drive away the Chinese then we can recover Scarborough Shoal," Lorenzana said.

He did not explicitly say if he called off the plan to send forces to Scarborough, but recounted how Duterte asked Cabinet officials to keep the celebration down - to avoid tensions with China.

"When this arbitral ruling was about to be announced, we were all in Malacañang. All the Cabinet members, we were there. So when it finally came out we had this meeting with the President. And it was decided that, he called it, 'let us do a soft landing and we should not be… overly celebrating, because we might offend China'," Lorenzana said.

He said this was the reason why then Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay "did not appear victorious" when he announced the international tribunal's decision. Critics slammed the Duterte administration for not rejoicing over the ruling. It was Duterte's first month in office.

The President himself later declared that he will "set aside the arbitral ruling" and "will not impose anything on China." He also said the Philippines cannot afford to go to war against the East Asian giant, but promised to bring the ruling up with Beijing within his term, which ends 2022.

Lorenzana: Only history can tell if Duterte's right

Senator Koko Pimentel, a Duterte ally, said it was "a good call" by the President not to deploy troops to the contested waters after winning the arbitration case.

"It was an understandable judgment call on the part of Pres. Duterte to show 'magnanimity in victory' and not do anything which might be misinterpreted by the other party as either a provocation or an attempt to enforce the decision," Pimentel said in a statement. "Otherwise tensions might have escalated to beyond a controllable point."

Meanwhile, Lorenzana said "only history will judge" if the President's actions in the sea dispute were "the prudent ones" to take.

Duterte draws flak for pursuing friendlier ties with China, which is now in talks with the government for a joint oil and gas exploration. The memorandum of understanding signed by the Philippines and China says it "will be without prejudice to the respective legal positions of both governments," but it has not specified where the development would be.