By Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on Wednesday denied making an agreement with China to remove a grounded warship that serves as a military outpost in South China Sea, and said if there ever were such a deal, it should be considered rescinded.
The Philippines maintains a handful of troops aboard the World War Two-era Sierra Madre at the Second Thomas Shoal, known by Manila as Ayungin shoal, which is located inside its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
China on Monday accused the Philippines of reneging on a promise made “explicitly” to remove the ship, which was grounded in 1999 to bolster its territorial claims in one of the world’s most contested areas.
“I’m not aware of any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its ship,” Marcos said in a video statement.
“And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now”.
Jonathan Malaya, National Security Council assistant director general, earlier challenged China to produce evidence of the promise.
“For all intents and purposes, it is a figment of their imagination,” he said.
China’s embassy in Manila said it had no comment.
China and the Philippines have been embroiled for years in on-off confrontations at the shoal, the latest on Saturday. The Philippines accused China’s coast guard of using water cannon to impede a resupply mission to the Sierra Madre.
The Philippines was “committed to maintain” the rusty ship on the shoal, Malaya said, adding it was “our symbol of sovereignty in a shoal located in our EEZ”.
An EEZ gives a country sovereign rights to fisheries and natural resources within 200 miles of its coast, but it does not denote sovereignty over that area.
The Philippines won an international arbitration award against China in 2016, after a tribunal said Beijing’s sweeping claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea had no legal basis, including at the Second Thomas Shoal.
China has built militarised, manmade islands in the South China Sea and its claim of historic sovereignty overlaps with the EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
Jay Batongbacal, a maritime expert at the University of the Philippines, said control of the Second Thomas Shoal was not only strategic for China but it could be “another ideal place to build a military base.”
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)