Updated at 4:11 p.m. ET on 2019-04-04
In a dramatic change of tone, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned Beijing on Thursday to keep away from an island that Manila occupies in the disputed South China Sea, saying he would order troops to defend it if necessary.
The president made the remarks soon after the Philippine government announced that Chinese vessels “have been present in large numbers” near Pag-asa Island, which Manila claims. Duterte, who has fostered closer ties with China since taking office in 2016, had spoken warmly about Beijing only two days earlier.
“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch it, that's a different story. I will tell the soldiers ‘prepare for suicide mission,’” Duterte said in a speech Thursday, using the local name for Thitu, according to the Reuters news service.
Earlier in the day, in a surprising turnaround, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement about the presence of the Chinese boats, saying this constituted an “illegal” and “clear violation” of national sovereignty.
The rare public rebukes by Philippine officials followed a government announcement that it had delivered a “diplomatic protest” to China’s Embassy in Manila last Friday, after the navy said it had spotted almost 300 Chinese vessels near Pag-asa, where Filipino troops have been repairing facilities.
The vessels were seen from January to March by the Philippine military’s Western Command based in Palawan, an island province southwest of Manila.
“Such actions are a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, as defined under international law including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” the Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “The presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa … is illegal.”
“Moreover, it has been observed that Chinese vessels have been present in large numbers and for sustained and recurring periods – what is commonly referred to as ‘swarming’ tactics – raising questions about their intent as well as concerns over their role in support of coercive objectives,” it said. “Such actions when not repudiated by the Chinese government are deemed to have been adopted by it.”
The statement by the Philippine president and his foreign ministry marked his government’s strongest words towards China in recent years.
When Duterte became president three years ago, he chose a non-confrontational tack in order to boost closer relations with Beijing, as he moved to distance the Philippines from the United States, its traditional defense ally.
His move led to a warming of ties with Beijing, which had agreed to grant Manila millions of dollars in development aid and loans. But economists, and even other Asian leaders, have warned Manila to be wary of Beijing’s “debt trap” strategy.
On Tuesday, Duterte maintained a friendly tone toward Beijing despite concerns raised by defense officials over the increased Chinese presence around Pag-asa Island.
“You know, Red China or Communist China just wants to be friends with us,” he said then in a speech in Manila.
Manila tells Beijing to ‘desist’
The statement from the foreign ministry emphasized that Pag-asa, which literally means “hope” in Tagalog, is part of the Kalayaan Island Group and an “integral part” of the country where it maintains “sovereign rights and jurisdiction.”
The ministry called on Beijing to “desist” from actions that it said contravened an earlier agreement between Southeast Asian countries and China to refrain from moves that “generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty” and threaten regional stability.
“We cannot emphasize enough the imperative to build and promote mutual trust and confidence,” the statement said, adding that all parties should practice “self-restraint” in conducting actions that may disturb the peace.
Manila also emphasized that Chinese leader Xi Jinping, during his Philippine visit last year, had agreed to the diplomatic arrangement to ensure that disputes did not escalate.
“We call on the Chinese government to adhere to this consensus reached at the highest levels, down to its agencies and its military,” the statement said. It came after senior diplomats from both sides earlier this week convened the fourth meeting of a “bilateral consultation mechanism.”
At the meeting, officials said, Filipino diplomats had a “frank yet cordial and constructive” discussion with their Chinese counterparts, during which “specific issues and recent developments and actions in the South China Sea” were raised.
They agreed that while they could not ignore the issues, they did not represent the “sum total” of Philippines-China bilateral relations, officials said. The two sides also agreed that any misunderstanding should be addressed through peaceful means, said officials who described the meeting as “fruitful.”
‘Deemed to have acquiesced’
Chinese fishing vessels had no right to be in the area, according to Philippine Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a South China Sea expert who noted that the boats were well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
He urged Manila to also file a diplomatic protest over China’s takeover of Sandy Cay and two other sandbars.
“Otherwise, the Philippines will be deemed to have acquiesced to China’s seizure of these sandbars, which form part of Philippine territory,” Carpio said.
China occupied Sandy Cay two years ago but the Philippines did not file any protest despite its promise that it would do so.
Sandy Cay, a sandbar with an area of seven hectares (17 acres), and two nearby low-tide sandbars are less than two nautical miles from Pag-asa, which is internationally called Thitu.
“Anything that emerges within our territorial sea is also our territory. That is well-recognized under international law,” Carpio said.
China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, had earlier assured Manila that Beijing was verifying reports about the alleged huge number of Chinese vessels in Pag-asa, saying the ships might be manned by “unarmed” fishermen
China claims most of the mineral-rich South China Sea, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims to the region.
During an overnight visit to Manila last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines that Washington would come to its defense if its security forces came under armed attack in the South China Sea.