Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in a rare public rebuke of China, expressed abhorrence and “grave concern” Monday about last week’s firing of water cannon by Chinese coast guard ships on Filipino supply boats in the South China Sea.
While addressing a special China-ASEAN summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and fellow Southeast Asian leaders in attendance, Duterte spoke about the Nov. 16 incident near a grounded World War II-era warship that serves as an outpost, saying South China Sea issues could not be solved by force.
“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments,” Duterte said. “This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.”
The Philippine president’s words were unusually strong because Duterte, whose term ends next year, has pursued closer ties with Beijing since taking office in mid-2016.
The European Union, meanwhile, was among the latest to hit out at China for using a water cannon against Philippine resupply boats in disputed waters. A statement issued by the EU over the weekend followed similar condemnation from the United States.
Duterte stressed that the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that threw out Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, had already provided “legal clarity” on the issue.
China has rejected the ruling and insisted on its historical claims over virtually the entire sea region, which the court ruled as having no basis in UNCLOS.
Last week, Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing that “on the evening of Nov. 16, two Philippine supply boats trespassed into waters near Ren’ai Jiao (Second Thomas Shoal) of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) without China’s consent.”
“Chinese coast guard vessels performed official duties in accordance with law and upheld China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime order,” Zhao said.
During Monday’s summit marking the 30th anniversary of relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, Duterte urged Beijing to commit to finishing a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The code, over which the two sides have been negotiating for years, would guide actions in the contested waterway.
“The South China Sea is a strategic challenge that cannot be solved by force,” he said.
“We all want to benefit from the bounties of this vital maritime domain. We agree that peace and stability are a precondition for this to happen,” Duterte said as he called on all parties to exercise “utmost restraint and avoid escalation of tensions.”
“And most importantly, let us earnestly work toward the peaceful resolution of disputes following international law. … There is simply no other way out of this colossal problem but the rule of law,” Duterte said.
Also on Monday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that resupply boats were headed to the outpost and should arrive Tuesday morning, the state-run Philippine News Agency reported.
“A Navy plane will be in the vicinity when the resupply ships are in Ayungin,” he said.
European Union opposition
In its statement issued on Sunday, the European Union said “it reiterates its strong opposition to any unilateral actions that endanger peace, security and stability in the region and the international rules-based order.”
The bloc “emphasizes the importance for all parties to respect freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” Nabila Massrali, the EU’s spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said in urging “all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means.”
On Friday, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price had reminded Beijing that an armed attack on Philippine boats in the South China Sea would invoke Washington’s defense commitment under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines.
The Ayungin Shoal, a submerged atoll in the Spratlys Islands, is claimed by China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Since 1999, the Philippines has maintained a Marine detachment aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, the World War II-era warship, which was grounded deliberately to serve as an outpost.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are among the ASEAN members claiming parts of the South China Sea. Indonesia does not consider itself a claimant but has issues with China claiming the waters around the Natuna islands.
Outside the bloc, Taiwan also claims parts of the South China Sea.
Philippine candidate: ‘My country, not theirs’
On Saturday, Philippine Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who is running for president in the country’s May 2022 general election, said a plane that he was traveling on had received a radio challenge from Chinese authorities as it neared Thitu, a South China Sea island which Manila calls Pag-asa.
“As we were approaching the airstrip on the island, our pilot was challenged by one of the Chinese Coast Guard vessels stationed a little beyond the three nautical-mile distance from the island of Pag-asa,” Lacson said in a statement.
Lacson shared a video taken from the cockpit, in which someone could be heard saying: “You are approaching our military zone. Please stay away from the area and leave immediately. Your actions are unfriendly and dangerous.”
Lacson said he never considered backing off.
“Aside from the possibility of being fired at being remote, this is my country, not theirs. They had no right. That was my mindset,” he said in a tweet.
Lacson said he visited the island to plant the Philippine flags and consult with its civilian residents and military guards. While there, he said received a message on his mobile phone from a roaming service provider which said “Welcome to China.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.