President Rodrigo Duterte’s chief legal counsel criticized China Monday for the continued presence of Chinese ships in the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, warning that the territorial incursion could damage ties and lead to “unwanted hostilities.”
“While we recognize the historical and cultural ties with China that has evolved into a productive relationship, its present territorial incursions is producing an unwelcome stain in their bond and may trigger unwanted hostilities that both countries would rather not pursue, as [the] destructive consequences are not only undesirable, they are abhorrent as well and anathema to the peace of the region,” Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said, in the strongest statement yet from the Palace about China’s actions in the South China Sea.
“We join the voices of protest and dissent of National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. in the matter of the unjustified stay of Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef,” Panelo said in a statement.
The Julian Felipe Reef, known internationally as Whitsun Reef, is one of the reefs outlining Pagkakaisa Banks, an oval-shaped submerged atoll located within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.
Some 220 Chinese vessels were first spotted in the reef on March 7, which the Armed Forces believed to be those of China’s maritime militia.
Panelo said the territorial dispute has to be resolved at the negotiating table or by the dictates of international law.
While the Philippines has already filed a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea, about 44 Chinese sea vessels remain in the area.
Panelo insisted that the Philippines has sovereign rights over the area and that the intrusion was unacceptable.
“We have strived to improve and strengthen our relationship with China by enhancing our economic, social and cultural trade, and there appears to be an evolving positive strengthening of ties by reason thereof,” he said.
Panelo also said the Philippines would not be blinded by China’s humanitarian gestures, referring to millions of COVID-19 vaccines donated by China.
“Let it be clear to all countries of the world that are protective of their own sovereignties. Like them, we are fiercely protective of ours,” Panelo said.
“We can negotiate on matters of mutual concern and benefit, but make no mistake about it — our sovereignty is non-negotiable,” he added.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque echoed the view at a news conference, saying: “We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our exclusive economic zone.”
The statements from the Palace were unusually strong, given President Duterte’s reluctance to confront Beijing, which he has sought to befriend.
His refusal to press China to respect a landmark 2016 arbitral ruling that clarified the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ has frustrated Duterte’s critics, who accuse him of conceding territory in return for elusive Chinese investment.
Duterte has previously said challenging China was pointless and risked starting a war.
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest over a “swarming and threatening” presence of 220 Chinese vessels it believed to be manned by maritime militias at the Julian Felipe Reef, a stance backed by ally the United States.
On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) rejected China’s view that the reef was a traditional fishing ground in its waters, and said it would send a diplomatic protest each day that China boats stayed there.
It said the boats “blatantly infringe” on Philippine jurisdiction.
A statement issued by the DFA also called out the Chinese embassy in Manila for criticizing Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has taken a tough stance on the incursion.
“Chinese embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government, and as guests must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine government officials.”
According to an Agence France-Presse analysis, China's "wolf warrior" diplomats are back after a brief lull, firing insults over Twitter, smearing critics, and suggesting conspiracies.
The hyperactivity of the envoys follows renewed global pressure over Beijing's treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority in China's Xinjiang region.
The term "wolf warrior diplomacy" became common parlance in 2019, when Chinese envoys — most prominently spokesman Zhao Lijian — adopted a vociferous defence of the Communist-led country on social media platforms such as Twitter, which is blocked in China.
The nickname derives from a film about a Rambo-like Chinese special forces soldier.
China insists it was forced into the change of tone, which came amid the fulminations of Donald Trump's White House.
But officials like Zhao, who made headlines in 2019 over controversial tweets as an envoy to Pakistan, took to his fresh combat role as foreign ministry spokesman with particular aplomb a year later.
On Sunday, Lorenzana demanded the immediate withdrawal of the remaining 44 Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, located 175 nautical miles of Bataraza, Palawan. There were initially more than 200 Chinese militia vessels in the area when they were spotted by Philippine officials on March 7.
The DFA said China’s statement “contained blatant falsehoods such as claims of adverse weather conditions when there were none and the supposed non-existence of maritime militia vessels in the area.”
The Chinese statement also “attempted to promote the clearly false narrative of China’s expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” the DFA said.
The DFA said it rejects China’s assertion that Julian Felipe Reef and its waters are their traditional fishing grounds.
“Tradition yields to law whether or not it is regarded as traditional fishing,” it said, adding that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that denigrated China’s massive claim “are clearly the only norm applicable to this situation.”
The DFA said the decision handed down by the tribunal following a case filed by the Philippines, is legally binding and “conclusively settled the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.”
In its ruling, the tribunal said claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction that exceed the geographic and substantive limits of maritime entitlements under UNCLOS, are without lawful effect.
It also said that UNCLOS “superseded any historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, in excess of the limits imposed therein.”
China, a signatory to the UNCLOS along with the Philippines, does not recognize the ruling.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Monday denied the suggestion that China sought concessions in exchange for an assured supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
Locsin said China’s delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines had no strings attached but was purely “help extended” with “no submission expected.”
In a separate tweet, Locsin disparaged the Chinese embassy statement, saying the Philippines will not yield “but die or trigger World War 3.”
“China can say what it wants, the Philippines will do what it must to keep what’s hers by right. Irrelevant whether we possess commensurate military power to meet the challenge; we will not yield but die — or trigger World War 3. Not a bad outcome; living is overrated. Honor is all,” Locsin said.
Senators slammed the continued presence of Chinese ships in the Julian Felipe Reef.
Senator Risa Hontiveros expressed outrage that the Chinese vessels have not left Julian Felipe Reef, despite a government demand that they do so.
“The Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe reef should leave immediately.
If they are fishing vessels as China claims, then they can't fish in our exclusive economic zone without our consent,” she said.
Hontiveros said China has long been using "civilian" vessels to pursue military activities in the EEZ.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the continued presence of the Chinese vessels in the reef is tantamount to "maritime bullying."
He commended Lorenzana for demanding that the 44 remaining ships leave the area immediately.
"It is high time that the country as one nation stand up to China’s continued incursion in the West Philippine Sea. By all accounts, it is maritime bullying," Drilon said.