Duterte’s senior legal adviser warns that China’s “ current territorial incursions ” are an “ unwanted stain ” in the closer ties between Manila and Beijing.
The presence of Chinese ships on a disputed reef off the Philippines could trigger “unwanted hostilities,” a senior President Rodrigo Duterte has warned, escalating a diplomatic row over ships Manila has termed “maritime militia.”
More than 200 Chinese boats were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, about 320 kilometers (175 nautical miles) west of Palawan Island in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Most of them have since dispersed to the Spratly Islands, but as of last week dozens of Chinese-flagged ships were still anchored on the boomerang-shaped reef, according to Philippine military patrols.
For weeks, Manila has called on Beijing to withdraw the “maritime militia” ships, claiming their foray into the Philippine EEZ was illegal within the meaning of the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
But China – which claims almost all of the resource-rich sea – refused, insisting they are weatherproof fishing boats and are allowed to be there.
Duterte, who has enjoyed a warmer relationship with his superpower neighbor since taking office in 2016, expressed concern to the Chinese ambassador about the ships, according to his spokesperson.
Until Monday, he had left the hard speech in public to his defense and foreign ministers.
But in the strongest remarks from his office, Duterte’s senior legal adviser Salvador Panelo warned that “China’s current territorial incursions produce an unwanted blemish in their bond and may trigger unwanted hostilities that both countries prefer. do not continue. “
“The issue of the territorial dispute must be resolved at the diplomatic negotiating table or according to the dictates of international law,” Panelo said in a statement Monday.
‘Get out of here’
It comes a day after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused Beijing of planning to occupy more “features” in the waters – where Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have rival claims.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the region reveals their intention to further occupy the features of the Western Philippine Sea,” Lorenzana said Sunday.
He had said earlier that he was “not fooled” to believe China’s explanation adding that the boats should “get out of there”.
Beijing often invokes the so-called nine-dash line to justify its apparent historic rights to most of the South China Sea and has ignored the 2016 Hague ruling which declared that claim to be baseless.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry, which has already lodged a diplomatic protest against the ships, pledged Monday to send a complaint “for every day” that Beijing delays the withdrawal of the ships.
He said the boats “flagrantly violated” Philippine jurisdiction.
In an apparent reference to China’s donation of COVID-19 vaccines, Panelo said the Philippines appreciated the “humanitarian gesture.”
But he added: “However, we will not be blinded by any act done by him in violation of international law and in derogation of our sovereign rights.”
Duterte spokesman Harry Roque echoed this view and said at a press conference: “We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our exclusive economic zone ( ZEE). “
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a previous response to the Philippines’ defense chief, he said he should avoid making “gratuitous remarks”.
“The Chinese Embassy has taken note of the perplexed statement by the Philippine Defense Secretary about Chinese fishing vessels around Niu’e Jiao in the South China Sea,” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement. release, referring to the reef by its Chinese name.
He said the reef was part of China’s Nansha Islands and a “traditional fishing spot” for Chinese fishermen for “many years”.