Philippine defense chief Delfin Lorenzana on Tuesday accused China of "bullying" his country, citing Beijing's past actions in the contested South China Sea.
He made the accusation a week after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte defended Beijing and said he had no choice but accept its expansionism -- including a missile buildup -- in the region.
Beijing has assured Manila that it too wants peace in the disputed sea region, but “it does not match what they are doing on the ground,” Defense Secretary Lorenzana told reporters.
Lorenzana said he had repeatedly called out Beijing on its actions, and that its assurances could just be lip service to the Philippines, which has been gravitating toward Beijing and away from traditional ally the United States since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
“The way that they took over Scarborough Shoal, to me, that was bullying,” Lorenzana said in Manila’s financial district of Makati, in what appeared to be the sharpest rebuke so far coming from a senior Philippine official.
‘Delicate balancing act’
The defense chief was referring to a triangular-shaped chain of rocks and reefs that lies within the Philippines’ internationally recognized exclusive economic zone, but which was taken over by Chinese security forces in 2012, sparking a bitter diplomatic row.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, hauled China to an international court, which ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016, stating that Beijing’s claims of ownership to almost the entire sea region had no legal basis under international law.
But instead of moving to enforce the order, Duterte, who took office a month before the ruling, shelved it to appease China. He has said that his action, along with warming of bilateral ties, led to billions in investment pledges from Chinese economic benefactors.
In an address to Congress last week, Duterte defended his actions and said he was faced with a far superior power in China, which he said had already installed missiles capable of reaching the Philippines in minutes on a network of military bases built on expanded shoals and reefs.
While he said that the area belonged to the Philippines, Duterte told Congress that he had “to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” He said he was forced to perform a “delicate balancing act” because Manila could not afford to antagonize China.
“A shooting war is a grief and misery multiplier. War leaves widows and orphans in its wake,” Duterte, 74, had said. “I am not ready or inclined to accept the occurrence of more destruction, more widows and more orphans, should war, even on a limited scale, break out.”
His statement came a month after a Chinese vessel rammed a Philippine fishing boat in the disputed sea region. Lorenzana had initially expressed anger, and demanded an apology from Beijing, but the president subsequently downplayed the “maritime incident,” saying it should not ruffle bilateral ties.
‘Doubting China’s motives’
On Tuesday, Lorenzana told reporters that he had questioned China’s motives in the South China Sea during a gathering of the region’s defense officials in Singapore in June.
“They said ‘we do not bully people around’ [and that] they follow international law, but I told them, ‘you do not,’” the defense chief said. “I told them that ‘what you are telling [us] is not what you are doing on the ground.’”
Until China’s words are matched by its actions “then what they are saying is doubtful,” Lorenzana said.
“The bottom line is, what they are saying does not match what they are doing in the West Philippine Sea,” he said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea, a vital shipping route for world trade.
Lorenzana's statement came on the heels of a survey by local pollster Pulse Asia which found that most Filipinos do not trust China after the ramming incident last month. The survey also found that a majority of Filipinos expect Beijing to pay the 22 fishermen whose boat was sunk, and that nearly four out of 10 respondents want Manila to pursue sanctions against the crew of the Chinese vessel.
“The people are naturally doubting China’s motive, whereas the trust rating on the US is high because even if we were a [U.S.] colony for more than 50 years, they have never abused that,” Lorenzana said, referring to the survey.
His comments came a day after China marked the 92nd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. In his speech marking the event in Manila, Chinese envoy Zhao Jianhua underscored China’s firm policy of adhering to a “peaceful settlement” in the West Philippine Sea.
“Despite the differences we have, we are ready to discuss with claimants over the differences we have,” Zhao said. “We always believe law is much better than confrontation.”