MANILA — Malacañang on Friday refused to comment on Chinese ships armed with destructive missiles that chased a boat carrying a Filipino news team in the West Philippine Sea.
"Defer to the SFA (Secretary of Foreign Affairs) and DND (Department of National Defense)," Palace spokesman Harry Roque said in a text message, when asked to comment on the incident.
Roque repeated his remark when sought to clarify why.
Chinese ships, including missile-capable boats, on Thursday chased down a Filipino vessel near Ayungin Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The Filipino motor boat, with an ABS-CBN News team on board, was traveling across various reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea to check the livelihood of Filipino fishermen affected by the presence of Chinese vessels in the area.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said the incident "opens a whole new area of interest."
"I’m not being sarcastic. Seriously, what if Filipinos on a pleasure craft, one of many yachts out there, crosses an invisible line drawn by China IN Philippine waters? What if they are fired upon or heaven forbid rammed—no, not that; those yachts cost millions of dollars," he said on Twitter.
He said this it was "imperative" for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations "to adopt a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea whereby all parties, China included, accept restraints."
"As China coordinator, the Philippines insists on ASEAN cooperation and no dilly-dallying which is what’s happening. Covid is no excuse," he said.
The military said it was "conducting investigation and verifications to establish what transpired."
"The AFP is concerned with the safety and well-being of our Kababayans that we have been forthright and transparent in our reporting about the situation in our EEZ," it added.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Beijing refuses to acknowledge a 2016 international tribunal ruling that junked its "historical" claims to nearly 90 percent of the waterway.
Several of its ships have lingered in the area.
China's hounding of the Filipino boat came as Philippine officials demanded the withdrawal of the Chinese ships in Julian Felipe Reef, with a retired Supreme Court judge warning their presence may be a prelude to occupation and building of a naval base as China did on Mischief Reef in 1995.
Earlier this week, President Rodrigo Duterte said the swarm of Chinese boats in Philippine waters will "not be an obstacle" to Beijing and Manila's COVID-19 vaccine cooperation.
The Philippines has one of Asia's worst COVID-19 outbreaks but has faced difficulties securing vaccine supplies.
Two million COVID-19 shots from Beijing-based Sinovac Biotech form the bulk of the Philippines' vaccine inventory so far, half of which were donated by China.
China maintained that Julian Felipe Reef was a traditional fishing ground where its vessels were seeking shelter from adverse weather.
The reef, which lies within the West Philippine Sea, has seen fair weather but the Chinese ships have remained, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier pointed out, saying he was "no fool" to believe the claim.
At least 44 Chinese boats remained in the area as of March 29, according to a Philippine government task force.
Defying public opinion, Duterte has sought to build an alliance with China and has been reluctant to confront its leadership having been promised billions of dollars of loans and investments, much of which have yet to materialize.
He has repeatedly said the Philippines was powerless to stop China from occupying features and that challenging its activities could risk a war his country would lose.
— With reports Pia Gutierrez, ABS-CBN News; Reuters