Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will enforce a Supreme Court order directing the government to protect and rehabilitate the marine environment in three areas the country claims in the disputed South China Sea, his spokesman said Monday.
The high court on Friday said it had issued a writ instructing key government agencies, including the Philippine Navy, police and the Coast Guard, to protect reefs and marine life in Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the government was “duty bound” to enforce the court order.
“Our coast guard, as well as other government agencies, are performing their task in securing the subject of the writ,” he said in a statement.
The court’s order, called writ of kalikasan, the Filipino word for “nature,” was prompted by a petition filed by activists and a group of fishermen from two provinces seeking to prevent environmental-law violations within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The writ is a legal remedy under local laws that protects a citizen’s constitutional right to a “healthy environment.” The petitioners alleged that the government had failed to act against China’s destructive activities, which they claimed were violations of a 2016 ruling issued in favor of the Philippines by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration.
“We take exception, however, to the contention that there has been inaction on the part of the administration with regard to the environmental concerns brought about by Chinese activities in the contested areas,” Panelo said.
The high court noted that as early as 2016, the arbitral tribunal had also found, among others, that fishermen from Chinese-flagged vessels have engaged in the “harvesting of endangered species on a significant scale and in the harvesting of giant clams in a manner that is severely destructive of the coral reef ecosystem.”
It also noted that China’s land reclamation and construction of “artificial islands, installations, and structures” at Mischief Reef has caused “severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”
In recent years, the South China Seas have become the scene of escalating territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over what the United States says is Beijing’s militarization of the disputed region by building military installations on artificial islands it occupies.
China claims almost all of the strategic sea region, a vast shipping waterway through which more than $3 billion of trade passes annually. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.
The Supreme Court also noted that Chinese fishermen had used cyanide and explosives while engaged in gathering corals and giant clams in the three areas claimed by Manila.
Panelo, a lawyer, said that while concerns have been raised about the environmental damage brought about the alleged incursions, the government must also consider that these have been made in contested areas.
“We are consciously cautious not to perform provocative acts that may trigger armed hostilities between the contesting countries, which may risk the lives of our countrymen and cause irreparable damage to our land,” Panelo said.
Panelo’s statement came as the U.S. military confirmed on Monday that two U.S. warships had sailed near islands claimed by Beijing in the sea region, in a move that China had described as a “provocative” action.
The U.S. guided-missile destroyers Preble and Chung Hoon traveled within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson Reefs in the Spratly Islands, Commander Clay Doss, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet, told Reuters on Tuesday.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang alleged during a news conference Tuesday that the U.S. ships “infringed upon Chinese sovereignty” when they entered the waters near the islets without China’s permission. He said Chinese navy warned them to leave.
“China urges the U.S. to stop such provocations, respect China's sovereignty and security interests and regional countries' efforts to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said, according to transcripts of the news conference posted on the foreign ministry’s website.
Lawyer: Three reefs must be protected
Abdiel Fajardo, president of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, said the court’s writ affirmed Manila’s position that the three reefs are all within the country’s 370-kilometer (231-mile) EEZ and should be protected by Philippine authorities from further environmental degradation.
“This affirms at this juncture the Philippine position made before the international arbitral body that the disputed islands falls within the EEZ of the Philippines, and must therefore be protected by Philippine authorities as required by the Constitution and domestic environmental laws,” said Fajardo, who represented the court petitioners.
The writ, in effect, obliges the government to enforce the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 ruling that invalidated much of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte has said he would not enforce the ruling immediately, and instead sought to gain China’s confidence by distancing his government from the United States, the Philippines’ traditional military ally.
Jojo Rinoza in Dagupan contributed to this report.