By Daniel Llanto

Amid calls for the Duterte administration to cancel the contracts of Chinese companies allegedly involved in the reclamation and militarization of the West Philippine Sea, Malacañang said these Chinese firms were contracted to build vital infrastructure projects in the “national interest”

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said President Duterte “will pursue the national interest and the national interest dictates that we finish the flagship projects under the ‘Build, Build, Build’ plan and he will not follow the Americans. He will respect the contracts with Chinese companies.”

Asked at a press briefing whether banning business with Chinese firms would send a signal that the Philippines is not condoning China’s island-building in contested waters, Roque said the arbitral court has ruled against such activities.

“Well, you know, there is already a decision there that the Philippines has sovereign rights where they built the artificial islands and that means that whoever built those artificial islands had no legal basis to do so and we’re satisfied with the decision,” Roque said.

In 2016, a Hague-based arbitral tribunal voided China’s maritime claim in the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its 200-nautical mile EEZ. China refused to recognize the ruling, calling it “illegal” and “a mere piece of paper.”

“For as long as that decision stands, we can proceed on trade and investment and set aside matters we cannot resolve in our lifetime,” Roque added.

Roque said the government is satisfied by the arbitral ruling which stated that “only the Philippines could have built those artificial islands because they form part of our exclusive economic zone.”

China has built artificial islands on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Burgos (Gaven), Kennan (Hughes), Mabini (Johnson) and Calderon (Cuarteron) Reefs, areas located off the province of Palawan that are also being claimed by the Philippines.

In a statement, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian welcomed Roque’s assurance that Chinese firms can freely conduct business in the Philippines.

“The participation of Chinese companies and individuals in domestic construction activities is legitimate, lawful and beyond reproach, lies entirely within its sovereignty,” Huang said.

“We believe that the pursuit of an independent foreign policy is in line with the fundamental interests of the Philippines and its people,” he added.

Critics have accused Duterte of selling out the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea in exchange for China-funded projects and military aid. Officials have denied this, saying the President won’t give an inch of the country’s territory to foreign powers.

During his fifth state of the nation address last July, Duterte, who has distanced himself from the US and has been seeking warmer ties with China, admitted he could not do much when it comes to the maritime row.

“So what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan, sabihin ko sa inyo. And I’m willing to admit it: Talagang inutil ako diyan” he said.

Subsidiaries of Chinese-state owned construction giant CCCC were among the 24 firms blacklisted by the US for involvement in the militarization of South China Sea features.

Among the Chinese firms in the list is CCCC Dredging, which is also involved in the first phase of the Sangley Point International Airport project in Cavite.

The US earlier said at least 24 state-owned Chinese companies, including subsidiaries of CCCC helped Chinese military “construct and militarize the internationally condemned artificial islands in the South China Sea.”  Washington called these state-owned enterprises “predatory.”