Malacañang banks on 'friendly relations' to resolve 'impasse'
MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte "stands by" his Defense chief, who recently alleged that Beijing was looking to occupy more areas in the West Philippine Sea, citing the continued presence of Chinese vessels that Manila believes are manned by militias.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday there were still 44 Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) despite improved weather conditions. "The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea," he said.
"The status right now is under the qualified political doctrine," said Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque. "Of course, the President stands by the statements of our Secretary of Defense."
"But I hasten to add that the President has been clear that this is not an issue that will lead to war between friendly nations," Roque said in an interview on CNN Philippines.
Duterte's chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, said though that the present Chinese incursions "is producing an unwelcome strain" in the two countries' bond.
"(These) may trigger unwanted hostilities that both countries would rather not pursue, as destructiveness consequences are not only undesirable, they are abhorrent as well and anathema to the peace of the region," said Panelo, who also served as Duterte's spokesman before.
"Even as we appreciate the humanitarian gesture of our neighbor, we will not be blinded however by an act by it in violation of international law and in derogation of our sovereign rights," he added.
Located 175 nautical miles west of Batarza town in Palawan, Julian Felipe Reef is within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats anchored near the reef - numbering more than 200 based on initial intelligence gathered by Philippine patrols on March 7 - were sheltering from rough seas and that no militia were aboard.
They also said the reef, called Niu'e Jiao in China, is part of China's Nansha Islands.
An international tribunal in 2016 invalidated China's claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part, but Beijing does not recognize the ruling and has built artificial islands there equipped with radar, missiles batteries and hangars for fighter jets.
"We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our exclusive economic zone," Roque said in a press briefing.
"We hope that the friendly relations will result in a peaceful resolution of this impasse."
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China when he assumed office in 2016 and put the maritime disputes in the backburner in favor of economic aid and investments from Beijing.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. said Sunday he is "considering a demarche" or a political step, even as he already filed a diplomatic protest last March 21, after China said that Julian Felipe Reef is part of its territory.
The United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom have criticized China's continuing incursions in the West Philippine Sea.