By Aurea Calica and Jaime Laude
The Philippine Star
MANILA, Philippines – The Kalayaan Island Group (Spratlys) has always been an integral part of Kalayaan town in Palawan, Malacañang asserted yesterday.
Malacañang said it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to deal with the claims of China and Vietnam over areas of the West Philippine Sea.
China has set up a new “prefecture level” city called Sansha to administer three disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), while Vietnam passed a law claiming the whole of the Spratlys and Paracels. Only China and Vietnam are fighting over the Paracel islands.
“We will leave it to the DFA to respond to this. I did see that they have appointed a certain local official to manage that particular area… As you know, we have a municipality in that particular area under Palawan – Kalayaan,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
Palace officials, however, refused to engage in any further word war with either China or Vietnam.
“If you noticed, the statements from the officials of the Philippine government have always been consistent with the President’s policy of de-escalation. That’s what we can say about that,” Valte said over government-run dzRB in response to China’s claims that the Philippines should refrain from making statements about the matter that could influence public opinion.
China news agency Xinhua reported that Xisha (Paracels), Zhongsha (Macclesfield Bank), and Nansha (Spratlys) islands have been collectively elevated to prefecture status under Sansha city from their previous county-level status. Sansha means “city of three sands” in Chinese.
The Chinese government said it set up the administration office for the three islands in 1959.
But based on records, Kalayaan is a sixth-class municipality in the province of Palawan. It is composed of only one barangay, Pag-asa, and has a 1.3-kilometer airstrip that is used both by the military and civilians. Most of the Filipino residents there are fishermen.
As early as 1946, the Philippines had declared ownership of the island group, according to earlier reports.
In March 1976, then President Ferdinand Marcos organized the Armed Forces’ Western Command based in Palawan in response to the heightening conflict of interest in the region and to abate any untoward incident.
To further the claim of the Philippines, Marcos, by virtue of Presidential Decree 1596, formally annexed the Kalayaan Islands creating a distinct and separate municipality known as “Kalayaan” under the political jurisdiction of the province of Palawan, but under the custody of the Department of National Defense on June 11, 1978.
Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. said while China could not be prevented from doing “crazy things,” they would never recognize its latest effort to strengthen its “administrative control” over the Spratlys.
“We do not recognize that. We are a regime of islands under the Philippine government,” Bito-onon, said, adding that Kalayaan town had been in existence for 34 years. He said his municipality celebrated its founding anniversary last June 11.
Bito-onon also said the seat of the so-called Sansha city on Yongxing Island or Woody Island in the Paracels – a Chinese island garrison – was 364 nautical miles from Kalayaan island town.
“It’s very far from Pag-asa. It’s not going to affect us,” he said.
Other local officials also criticized Beijing’s move to firm up its hold on the Spratlys.
Masinloc, Zambales Mayor Desire Edora said until such time that the prevailing territorial dispute in Panatag Shoal is resolved, the municipal government will continue to have administrative control over the area and its nearby waters.
Through a municipal resolution forwarded to the provincial and the national governments, the town of Masinloc has declared Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc and Karburo to the local fisherfolk, as part of its territory.
Aside from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have territorial claims in the area.
All Spratlys claimant countries have troops in the region, except for Brunei.