MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte has talked to the Chinese envoy in Manila about the presence of some 200 Chinese ships at a West Philippine Sea reef, his spokesman said on Thursday.
Duterte and Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian talked about the maritime issue "on the side" of a personal visit for the Filipino leader's upcoming birthday, said his spokesman Harry Roque.
Huang had requested the meeting to extend birthday greetings to Duterte long before reports about the Chinese ships at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef surfaced, said Roque, adding that the meeting happened while he was on quarantine after catching COVID-19. He has since recovered.
"Nagkausap po sila, pero hindi po 'yan lang ang pinag-usapan nila.
Before reports meron na appointment for birthday," he said in a press briefing.
(They have talked, but that is not the only thing they talked about.)
"It was a personal visit between two very close friends. And on the side, siyempre po sinabi ni Presidente iyong mga sinabi niya sa UN," he added.
(And on the side, of course, the President said what he previously told the United Nations.)
Duterte in September told the UN General Assembly that Philippine officials "reject attempts to undermine" a 2016 arbitral ruling that junked China's sweeping claims to the South China Sea, which covers the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the disputed waters.
"Proprotektahan natin ang ating teritoryo at kinukunsidera pa rin natin na bahagi ng ating teritoryo ang Julian Felipe. Pangalawa po, tayo ay naninindigan sa arbitral award," said Roque.
(We will protect our territory and we consider Julian Felipe part of our territory. Second, we stand by the arbitral award.)
Asked what government would do if the Chinese flotilla refused to leave, he said, "Naniniwala po tayo sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan, mareresolba naman ito... In the spirit of friendship, inaasahan natin na hindi mananatili doon iyong mga barkong 'yon."
(We believe that between friends, we can solve this. In the spirit of friendship, we expect that those ships won't stay there.)
VACCINES TO 'SOFTEN BLOW'?
Officials earlier credited the "friendship" between the 2 countries behind China's donation of 1 million Beijing-manufactured COVID-19 shots.
But former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said Wednesday that Beijing was trying to "soften the blow" of seizing the West Philippine Sea by donating vaccines to Manila.
"Pasensiya na po kayo pero didiretsuhin ko kayo, guni-guni lang po iyan ni Justice Carpio... Naniniwala po tayo na itong donasyon galing sa Tsina ay kabahagi po ng humanitarian effort ng Tsina," Roque said in a television interview.
(Sorry, but I will be frank with you, that is just Justice Carpio's imagination. We believe that the donation from China is part of its humanitarian effort.)
The Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against the "swarming and threatening presence" of the 220 ships believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel.
Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called the presence of militia vessels a "clear provocative action of militarizing the area," and urged China to recall them.
The Chinese Embassy rejected the accusations.
"There is no Chinese maritime militia as alleged. Any speculation as such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation," it said in a statement.
Several countries have expressed concern for the latest Chinese action.
The US Embassy said the Chinese boats had been mooring in the area for many months in increasing numbers, regardless of the weather.
In a tweet, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington "stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of (Chinese) maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef.
"We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security," he said.
Japan's ambassador to the Philippines Koshikawa Kazuhiko on Tuesday said his country "opposes any action that heightens tensions" in the South China Sea, and supports international efforts to keep the waters peaceful and open.
In a direct response on Twitter, the Chinese embassy said, "Within our region tensions are rising because some external countries are bent on playing fusty geopolitical games."
"It is a pity that some Asian country, which has disputes in the East China Sea and is driven by the selfish aim to check China's revitalization, willingly stoops as a strategic vassal of the US," it said.
The Chinese embassy also criticized the United States for "fanning flames and provoking confrontation in the region."
— With a report from Reuters