MANILA – The Philippines will continue patrolling the Spratlys in the South China Sea, ignoring a warning from China to stop “illegal provocations” in waters around the disputed island chain.
“We’re going to continue our patrol because it’s ours. That’s all there is to it, and then they (China) will continue to call it an illegal provocation… but that’s their right. It’s a free world. We can’t stop another country from talking,” Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said in an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel on Wednesday (Aug 26).
China last Friday accused the Philippines of “illegal provocations” with its routine patrols around the Spratlys, in the southern half of the South China Sea, where Vietnam and Taiwan have also built outposts.
That was Beijing’s response after Manila lodged a diplomatic protest over what it said was China’s illegal confiscation of fish aggregating devices from Filipino fishermen in a disputed lagoon held by Beijing in the South China Sea.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry said the incident happened three months ago at Scarborough Shoal, a prime fishing site seized by China in 2012 after a months-long naval stand-off with the Philippines that prompted an unprecedented international legal challenge by Manila.
The ministry also protested China’s “continuing illicit issuances of radio challenges (to) Philippine aircraft conducting legitimate regular maritime patrols”.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian last Friday responded by saying the Philippines was the one “infringing on China’s sovereignty and security” with its patrols around the Spratlys.
He also defended China’s action at Scarborough, insisting that “it is beyond reproach for China’s Coast Guard to conduct law enforcement (there) as it is a lawful practice”.
Mr Locsin said he had “formally protested certain actions from China in what is indisputably our territorial waters”.
“So fine, let them say that. They can call it illegal provocations. You can’t change their mind,” he said.
Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana had also weighed in.
“They (China) are the ones who have been doing provocations by illegally occupying some features within our EEZ. Hence, they have no right to claim they are enforcing their laws,” Mr Lorenzana said on Sunday, referring to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). “Their so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their nine-dash line doesn’t exist except in their imaginations,” he said.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, often invoking its so-called nine-dash line to justify its alleged historic rights to the key waterway that is also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.
Manila filed a case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague which ruled in 2016 that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line”. But China rejected the ruling by the United Nations-backed tribunal.
Mr Locsin on Wednesday also insisted that President Rodrigo Duterte was not “kowtowing” to China and had, in fact, once confronted Chinese President Xi Jinping about his nation’s claims over nearly all of the South China Sea.
“There is no kowtowing. The president himself confronted (Chinese President) Xi Jinping,” Mr Locsin said. “He brought it up and the reaction (from Mr Xi) was not very nice.”
In his fifth State of the Nation Address last month (July), Mr Duterte basically admitted that he could only sit back and watch whatever China does in the South China Sea.
“So what can we do? We have to go to war, and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can but I cannot. I’m useless when it comes to that. I’m willing to admit it,” he said.
Philippine-China relations have improved under Mr Duterte, who revived once-icy diplomatic ties after being elected in 2016 when he largely set aside maritime disputes in favour of wooing Chinese aid, trade and investment.