MANILA — The Philippines should not have a "misplaced" feeling of indebtedness to China, Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto said Thursday after President Rodrigo Duterte's remark that Manila owes the Asian giant for its aid, including donated COVID-19 vaccines.
"The Philippines should be grateful for China’s assistance to fight COVID [through] our vaccination program. Nevertheless, we did pay for it and we should not have a misplaced utang na loob to China," Recto told ABS-CBN News in a text message.
Recto said China's continuing incursions in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea have resulted to displaced fishermen and reduced sources of food supply.
"China has taken away our ability to utilize resources in our exclusive economic zone and have destabilized the region by building military outpost in West [Philippine] Sea," he said.
"No one wants trouble with China, only mutual respect. Philippines should work with our allies for us to regain resources, needed by Filipinos in our exclusive economic zone," he added.
Sen. Grace Poe, meanwhile, said the country's friendship with other countries "must pave the way for common respect and rules-based approach in maintaining peace and stability in our waters."
"As we continue to raise our voices against the threats to our waters, our government must not renege on patrolling [the West Philippine Sea] to ensure that Filipino fishermen are secure as they venture into the common fishing grounds for livelihood," Poe said in a statement.
"Our presence in the West Philippine Sea is an unyielding display that we are standing our ground on what is ours and securing our people's productive access to our marine resources," she said.
In a televised public briefing late Wednesday, Duterte said the Philippines holds a "debt of gratitude" to China, noting the one million COVID-19 vaccine doses it has donated.
"I’m stating it for the record, we do not want war with China. China is a good friend. Mayroon tayong utang na loob na marami pati ‘yong bakuna natin," Duterte said.
Although, he said the Philippines' territorial waters cannot be bargained.
A 2016 ruling of the UN-backed arbitration court in The Hague invalidated China's sweeping claims over almost the entire South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is a part.
The Philippines has taken a tough tone in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its EEZ, reviving tensions that had eased due to Duterte's close ties with Beijing.
The Philippine Coast Guard and the fisheries bureau have started maritime exercises inside the country's 200-mile EEZ, boosting presence to counter the "threatening" presence of Chinese boats.
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China upon assuming power in 2016, temporarily setting aside the arbitration award in favor of economic aid and investments.