MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesperson on Thursday said the Philippines should perhaps be “thankful” for the “maritime rescue center” that China claims to have built on Kagitingan Reef or Fiery Cross Reef, one of the reefs being claimed by the Philippines in the disputed South China Sea.
Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua earlier reported that China’s Ministry of Transport opened the center “to better protect navigation and transport safety in the South China Sea."
Asked to react on China’s latest move in the disputed area, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said, “maybe we should be thankful.”
“Personally, I don’t think establishing a distress center is bad, even in whose territory. It will be helping everybody in distress,” Panelo said, shrugging off assertions that the center was built on a reef being claimed by the Philippines.
An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China’s expansive nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea, which includes the Spratly archipelago where Beijing has built artificial islands, including the one on Kagitingan Reef.
While the Philippines scored a victory against Beijing, Duterte has chosen to downplay this in exchange for improved economic ties with the Asian giant.
Panelo said he would let Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. deal with the matter for now, as he parried questions on whether Manila would protest China’s latest move in the hotly-contested waters.
“We will give them the benefit of the doubt. If we, for instance, if we see anything that will be inconsistent in what they are saying, then we will make our… the government will always protest anything that intrudes into our sovereignty,” Panelo said.
The administration's move to pursue friendly ties with China has irked critics pushing for the country's assertion of its sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone in the waters.