MANILA - Malacañang on Wednesday said the Philippine government is not being too soft on Beijing despite the latter’s activities in the disputed South China Sea.
Critics have accused President Rodrigo Duterte of letting China get away with its militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea, an area where there are competing claims among China, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Malacañang has shot down criticism that the Philippines under Duterte is not doing enough to assert its rights to the resources-rich waters, even as it hinted that it has limited options in dealing with the Asian military power.
“We are not being too soft [on China],” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said when asked to react on the concern raised by Southeast Asian foreign ministers about China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea.
Ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday said China's continued reclamation in the South China Sea has eroded trust among claimants and could raise regional tensions.
The ministers did not mention China by name in their statement after a one-day meeting in Singapore, the current chair of the group.
Ministers "took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region," said Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in the statement.
China in December defended its construction in some areas of the South China Sea as "normal" after a US think-tank released new satellite images showing the deployment of radar and other equipment.
Following a meeting with ASEAN last year, China agreed to begin talks on a much-delayed code of conduct for the area, which Balakrishnan warned would be a "complicated negotiation".
A Philippine Daily Inquirer report earlier showed close-up images of almost-complete military facilities in the 7 artificial islands China has been building and improving in the Spratlys.
Asked to react last Monday on the photos, Roque said “Whether we like it [or not], they intended to use them as military bases, so what do you want us to say? All we could do is to extract a promise from China not to reclaim any new artificial islands.”
Roque told reporters today that the ASEAN foreign ministers’ statement does not necessarily go against the Philippine position of improving ties with China.
“ASEAN as a bloc is seeking the conclusion of the code of conduct,” Roque said.
“We have an established policy… We are of course one with ASEAN in recognizing that this is a concern for ASEAN countries - the freedom of navigation in the West Philippine Sea. It is our common concern with everyone to maintain peace security and stability in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.”