MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte did not say that China was in possession of the West Philippine Sea but had a more advantageous "position" in the disputed waters, top security and defense officials said Tuesday.
Duterte earlier drew flak from lawmakers and other government officials for saying in his fourth State of the Nation Address that the Philippine Coast Guard could not drive away China from disputed waters, as Asia's largest economy was already "in possession" of areas within the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
"I think the President did not say that they (China) are in possession, but that they are in position," National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said in a press briefing.
"They have the positional advantage right now and they have the equipment to enforce their position," Esperon said referring to the Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs where China built artificial islands.
The Mischief reef is part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, while the Fiery Cross reef belongs to international waters.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana backed Esperon's clarification, saying Manila continues to contest Beijing's sweeping claims in the West Philippine Sea.
"Nakaposisyon sila sa islands nila, but they are not in possession na pag-aari nila 'yung West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it," the defense chief said.
(They are positioned in their islands, but they are not in possession or own the West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it.)
China's construction of artificial islands in disputed waters started in 2012, long before Duterte won the presidency.
In his report to the nation Monday, Duterte said he would like to assert the country's sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea but would do so in due time, citing China's military might.
Asked in a press conference later when such due time would be, Duterte said when China starts to dig for oil. He said the Philippines should have a share of the resources.
Duterte has drawn flak for granting fishing rights to China just weeks after a Chinese vessel hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat, leaving behind 22 Philippine fishermen at sea. They were later rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
China said it was an accident, and government doubted the initial narration of the Filipino fishermen that they were rammed. The fishers later said they were no longer sure if it was intentional.