MANILA - Malacañang on Monday denied the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte had never protested China’s “militarization” in the South China Sea.
The Duterte administration has been criticized for supposedly letting China get away with construction activities in its artificial islands in disputed waters.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, however, said contrary to critics’ claims, “we have protested not only the building of islands but also the alleged ‘militarization’ of the islands.”
“The Philippine government has consistently filed protest. And even during the term of President Duterte, we have filed protest,” Roque said.
“[This is] in response to claims that we are not doing anything. We are doing what the government has deemed best to be done.”
Beijing has almost finished building military installations in the 7 reefs claimed by Manila in the Spratly archipelago, according to a Philippine Daily Inquirer report which released close-up images of the artificial islands.
Observers said the militarization is part of China’s bid to cement its control over the contested waters.
Malacañang had earlier downplayed the release of the photos, with Roque previously hinting Manila was helpless in the face of a superior Chinese military.
Roque, however, said the Duterte government has always put the country’s interests above all in making decisions related to the sea dispute.
He added there was no need to file a new protest over the latest images, noting Manila has a “continuing” protest against China’s activities in the disputed waters.
“It has been there. What the news reported is that it has been completed. So it has been protested, the fact that there are military hardware in the islands have been protested,” he said.
Since assuming power, Duterte has sought to downplay Manila’s South China Sea dispute with Beijing in pursuit of better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea where $5 trillion in trade goods pass annually. The area is also believed to contain oil and gas reserves.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea in March.
Meanwhile, the Philippines and China will also hold tomorrow its second bilateral consultation mechanism meeting on the South China Sea.
This mechanism was established following Duterte’s state visit to China in October 2016.
The first meeting was held in Guizhou, China last May 19, 2017.
Roque stressed that the Philippines and China will go “full speed ahead” in tackling non-contentious matters such as trade, while coursing the more sensitive sea dispute to the bilateral consultation mechanism.