President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered that the Philippines will not participate in maritime drills with any country in the South China Sea (SCS) unless it is done within the country's 12-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Tuesday.
READ: Aussies join naval drill in PH Sea
Lorenzana said Duterte gave the order to prevent an escalation of tensions in the disputed waters.
Aside from Philippines and China, other countries that claim parts of the waterway are Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Brunei.
“The President has a standing order to us, to me that we should not involve ourselves in the naval exercises in the South China Sea except in our national waters,” he said in a virtual briefing.
“I hope all parties in this exercise will work on their actions there or exercise prudence and carefulness so there will be no miscalculations that could further increase the tension,” he added.
His remarks came after the United States deployed nuclear-powered warships in the waterway in recent weeks to counter China’s moves in the area.
Last month, China conducted "high-intensity" naval exercises with a focus on enhancing its amphibious assault capabilities.
Lorenzana believes that teaming up with the US, its long-time ally, will “definitely” increase the tension between Manila and Beijing, adding it is the "last thing" the country wants to do right now.
“We cannot do that, we cannot exercise in the South China Sea,” he stated. “If one country’s action is considered belligerent by another, tension will rise.”
Lt. Gen Gilbert Gapay, the new Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), agreed with Lorenzana, saying the country’s dispute with China should be resolved “peacefully.”
“We have reiterated our position favoring and supporting the diplomatic and peaceful resolution of conflicting interest in the West Philippine Sea,” Gapay said.
“For us, there is no conflict as the arbitral ruling has fairly dismissed [China’s] expansive claims that subvert international law and the laws of the sea. We will continue to advance this,” the AFP chief said, referring to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA)’s decision favoring the Philippines’ claims in SCS over China in 2016.
Duterte, however, refused to assert the country’s claims in SCS using the tribunal ruling, even saying in his recent State of the Nation Address that he was "inutile" in doing so.
China's expanding military presence in the region has worried several of its neighbours, while the US has vowed to stand up against Beijing's territorial claims to much of the South China Sea, including the contested Paracel Islands.
Chinese H-6G and H-6J jet bombers carried out "high-intensity training, and completed day-and-night training exercises in taking off and landing, long-range assault, and attacks on sea targets," defense ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said at a virtual press conference.
Ren said the exercises were part of routine training and had "achieved the expected results", without giving their specific location.
China -- which is locked in disputes with neighbours including India, Japan and Vietnam over islands in the South China Sea -- has infuriated other nations by building artificial islands with military installations in parts of the sea.
Washington declared earlier this month that Beijing's claims to most of the sea are illegal, ramping up support for Southeast Asian nations with claims to parts of it.
The region is believed to have valuable oil and gas deposits.
Australia has also rejected Beijing's territorial and maritime claims in the sea, saying there was "no legal basis" to several of China's claims.
The US regularly conducts so-called "freedom of navigation operations" in the South China Sea in order to stand up to Beijing, with the US Navy sometimes sending warships to the Paracels.