MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte's policy towards Beijing is "working", Malacañang said on Thursday, after a government task force flagged "incursions" of nearly 300 Chinese ships in Philippine territory.
China has not seized any new territory from the Philippines, unlike its effective control of Scarborough Shoal during the administration of Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino III, said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
"Alisin natin sa ating mga isipan na ang pagtataguyod ng soberenya ibig sabihin, makikipag-gulo, makikipag-giyera sa Tsina. Hindi po. Mayroon iba't ibang pamamaraan para itaguyod ang ating soberenya," he said in a press briefing.
(Let us remove from our mindset the idea that upholding sovereignty means seeking trouble, getting into war with China. No. There are various ways to uphold our sovereignty.)
Duterte had repeatedly said that asserting the Philippines' rights in the South China Sea entails war, saying last month, "We can retake it only by force. There is no way that we can get back ang tawag nilang Philippine Sea without any bloodshed. 'Yan talaga ang totoo." he said.
(We can retake it only by force. There is no way that we can get back what we call the West Philippine Sea without any bloodshed. That's the truth.)
"China is claiming it, we are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it. So it’s simple as that. They are in possession of the property… So what can we do? We have to go to war, and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other President can, but I cannot," Duterte also said during his State of the Nation Address last year.
The policy of Duterte to push through with things that both countries can, appears to be working for now, said Roque.
His statement comes a day after the government's task force on the West Philippine Sea reported what it said were incursions within and outside the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 287 maritime militia vessels from China.
Roque said the report did not indicate if the ships were in areas contested by China or other countries.
"Ang dapat tayong mabahala ay ‘yong mga bapor na naroroon sa mga lugar na sakop ng ating conflicting claims with China... Iyon talaga ang dapat nating problemahin. Iyon ang dapat na iprotesta ulit ng DFA ," Roque said.
(We should worry about the ships in the areas covered by our conflicting areas with China. That's what we should treat us a problem. That's what the DFA should protest again.)
The task force said that patrols conducted by maritime authorities on May 9 showed that "bigger groupings" of the Chinese vessels in Philippine waters were spotted in Chinese-built artificial islands.
Aside from the Chinese militia vessels, two Houbei-class missile warships were found inside Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, and two Vietnamese logistics/supply ships and one VN Coast Guard vessel were at Sin Cowe East (Grierson) Reef.
Several Chinese ships and a few from Vietnam were also spotted in other features in the Kalayaan Island Group, off Palawan mainland, as well as in Scarborough Shoal, the task force said.
"Maski sila po ay naririyan, maski sila po ay mas makapangyarihan sa atin, might is not always right dahil kung wala silang basehan para magkaroon ng titulo sa mga pinag-aawayang isla, their occupation will not result in title anyway," Roque said.
(Although they are there, even if they are more powerful than us, might is not always right because if they do not have basis over the disputed island, their occupation will not result in title anyway.)
The Department of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a "swarming and threatening presence" of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.
Asked why he said Duterte's foreign policy works despite the need for these protests, Roque said, "Having a working policy does not mean it's perfect."
"It's not a perfect world, kaya nga kinakailangan patuloy pa rin nating protektahan ang ating interes," he said.
(This is why we should continue to protect our interest.)
The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through "sovereignty patrols", in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under pro-China Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.
Experts say China's fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.
A retired Philippine Supreme Court justice had warned that China's swarming of the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the Kalayaan Island Group since March could be a prelude to occupation and building of a military base, as Beijing did on Mischief Reef in 1995.
Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats as it asserts its illegal claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines' favor in a dispute with China, was just a "piece of paper" that he could throw in the trash.
The tribunal ruled that China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, has no legal basis.
Defense and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte's comments "cancels-out" the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defense chiefs.
"We don't have unity in messaging," Custodio said. "That is encouraging China's actions."
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China upon assuming power in 2016, even setting aside the arbitral award in favor of economic aid and investments from Beijing.
– With reports from Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News; Reuters