MANILA, Philippines – President Aquino has rejected claims that he has been belligerent towards China, saying that his administration has been bending over backwards to de-escalate the territorial dispute with Beijing.
In an exclusive interview with ANC’s Coco Alcuaz, Aquino said that from Day 1 of the conflict at Scarborough Shoal, his government has been taking steps to ensure that tensions with China do not escalate.
“When this whole incident happened, we had a Navy ship [there]. As soon as a civilian ship was ready to sail, it replaced the Navy ship. From day 1 practically, or 3 days to be technical about it, when the Coast Guard ship was ready, we wanted to de-escalate,” he said.
Tensions between China and the Philippines started last April after the Philippine warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar was involved in a standoff with 2 Chinese surveillance vessels at the Scarborough Shoal, an area claimed by both nations. The surveillance boats prevented Philippine authorities from arresting Chinese fishermen who were fishing in the area.
The Philippines has filed several diplomatic protests with Beijing over the Chinese ships’ intrusions into contested waters.
Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario spoke out against Chinese “duplicity” and “intimidation” in the South China Sea, noting that China failed to honor an agreement to pull out all ships from the shoal.
In the interview, Aquino said his government has not been engaged in a media war or entered into international arbitration to settle the issue.
“We have tried to be as reasonable as possible. In fact, we've been bending over backwards, we try to look at it from their perspective, and we try to see, hopefully that they look at it from our perspective and really achieve some reasonableness in terms of the actions of both parties,” he said.
He added: “I don’t think I have been as belligerent as some sectors are saying. I should be tougher. But I think we have given them all of the necessary means and steps to avoid having the 'loss of face' aspect, trying to come up with something that is doable immediately. And we're waiting for appropriate response from their side.”
Preparing for contingencies
The President conceded that the government is preparing for contingencies if in case the sea dispute escalates into a shooting war. He noted, however, that an escalation into violence is unlikely at this point.
“Well, we are preparing contingencies for that but we don’t think that is a likely possibility at this point, or likely probability at this point. We will not add to the conditions that will set about such a situation. We will always endeavor to de-escalate and pursue that option of talking about this dispute and resolving it peacefully,” he said.
A Philippine military official, meanwhile, said at least 30 Chinese fishing vessels deployed by China at the Spratly Islands were monitored to be at more than 300 nautical miles from Puerto Princesa City.
AFP Western Command chief Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban said the fishing vessels are being escorted by a Chinese maritime ship while doing fishing at the Kagitingan Reef or Fiery Cross Reef, which is occupied by China.
Sabban said the military will not take action against the Chinese fishing vessels. He also noted the Chinese ships are outside the country's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
"We are not claiming [Kagitingan Reef]. That's theirs. Why would we drive them away? They own that one,” he said.
The full interview with President Aquino will be aired on ANC's Inside Business hosted by Coco Alcuaz at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (July 18).