MANILA — Malacañang said on Thursday the public should leave President Rodrigo Duterte "to his own devices" in dealing with China as authorities tried to resolve the massing of some 240 Chinese ships in Philippine territorial waters.
Diplomatic initiatives are exempted from freedom of information and need not be announced to the public because "the President must make the right decision, no matter what," said Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque.
"Kung ano man ang ginagawa ng Presidente, hayaan na nating gawin niya iyon sa isang pribadong pamamaraan,”
Roque said, when asked how the President would use his friendship with Beijing to counter Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea.
"Let's leave the President to his devices. Napakita naman niya na in the past 5 years of his administration, we have moved from a position of antagonism with China to a position of friendship," he said in a press briefing.
(Whatever the President does, let us allow him to do so in a private manner... He has shown that in the past 5 years of his administration, we have moved from a position of antagonism with China to a position of friendship.)
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China when he assumed power in 2016, temporarily shelving the maritime disputes in the South China Sea in favor of economic aid and investments from Beijing.
The Philippines remains "committed to the codification of a Code of Conduct," said Roque, which the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China are negotiating to manage tensions in the South China Sea.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday 2 new formal protests had been lodged against Beijing, days after Manila summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian to press for the withdrawal of its vessels at Julian Felipe Reef, which is within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines last month described the presence of over 200 boats believed to be manned by militias as "swarming and threatening", while the United States, Japan and other countries have voiced concern over China’s intentions, prompting rebukes by Beijing.
In a Twitter post, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said, "they really are fishing everything in the water that belongs by law to us."
A Philippine government task force said the vessels, which are about 60 meters in length, can catch a ton of fish a day. It said 240 were in various areas in Philippine waters as of Sunday, including 9 at Julian Felipe Reef.
"The continuous swarming of Chinese vessels poses a threat to the safety of navigation, safety of life at sea, and impedes the exclusive right of Filipinos to benefit from the marine wealth in the EEZ," the task force said in a statement late on Monday.
Asked during his briefing when the vessels are likely to leave, Roque said, "Hindi ko po masasabi ‘yan."
"Pero inaasahan po natin na yong malapit na pagkakaibigan natin, magiging dahilan kung bakit sila aalis nang mas maaga," he added, referring to China and the Philippines.
(I cannot say. But we expect that our close friendship will be the reason why they will leave earlier.)
China's embassy in Manila and the foreign ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Chinese diplomats previously said the Julian Felipe Reef is part of its traditional fishing grounds, and that vessels were taking shelter from rough seas and did not have militia aboard. Manila rejected the claim.
Since coming to power, Duterte has criticized US foreign policy and sought to improve ties with Beijing, but China's maritime assertiveness has put him in a difficult spot at times.
The Philippine navy planned to deploy 3 more ships in its waters.
"We have to understand that to say that one area is ours, we have to be there," army spokesman Maj. Gen. Edgard Arevalo said.
Retired Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, an advocate of Manila's sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea, warned that the swarming of Chinese boats at the Julian Felipe Reef may be a prelude to occupation and building of naval base there as Beijing did on the Mischief Reef in 1995.
– With a report from Reuters