Foreign ships passing through Philippine territorial waters without permission would be dealt with in an "unfriendly manner,” President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman said Tuesday, a week after Filipino officials raised alarms over multiple sightings of Chinese warships passing unannounced through the country’s seas.
The strong words come ahead of Duterte’s scheduled five-day trip to China next week, during which he has promised to take up with counterpart Xi Jinping the long-simmering South China Sea dispute.
“To avoid misunderstanding in the future, the president is putting on notice that beginning today, all foreign vessels passing our territorial waters must notify and get clearance from the proper government authority well in advance of the actual passage,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.
“Either we get a compliance in a friendly manner, or we enforce it in an unfriendly manner,” he said.
Panelo did not explain what he meant by “an unfriendly manner” or how that order from Duterte would be enforced. The Philippine leader had earlier insisted that he could not do anything in the face of Chinese incursions into Philippine territorities in the disputed sea region.
Philippine naval forces could enforce Duterte’s order by escorting the foreign ships out of the area, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters Tuesday.
“There are so many things that we can to do be unfriendly, that’s cutting their bow or escorting them,” he said. “I’m going to defer to the Navy.”
Last month, Duterte told Congress that he would rather settle differences in a boardroom than face China in a war, noting that Beijing had already positioned missiles on territory it claimed in the sea region that could hit the Philippines in a matter of minutes.
But his sudden change of tune comes after his defense and national security advisers publicly denounced repeated Chinese incursions into Philippine waters, as well as the “swarming” of Chinese boats near a Manila-occupied island in the South China Sea.
Panelo said Duterte was expected to talk to Xi about the July 2016 international court ruling in favor of the Philippines that invalidated China’s expansive claims to the potentially rich and strategically located sea region.
Duterte would press China about the enactment of a long-delayed code of conduct in the South China Sea, and discuss likely joint exploration for oil and other minerals there, Panelo said.
During his China visit, Duterte would also inaugurate a school building named after his late mother, Soledad Duterte, at the Fujian Normal University, Panelo said.
Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, any foreign ship may be allowed to cross a coastal state’s territorial waters without notifying the state if the vessel is conducting innocent passage or moving in a straight path heading back out to sea.
On Monday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that a diplomatic protest would be filed against China over the multiple incursions of Chinese warships since June.
“Fire diplomatic protest over Chinese warship; drop the diplomatic crap; say it is ours period; they’re trespassing,” Locsin posted on his Twitter page.
In a teleconference with Manila-based reporters last week, Gen. David Goldfein, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, expressed concerns about the perceived rise in violations of maritime rules in the region.
“Frankly, any activity that we see both at sea and in the air … has got to adhere to some international rules of order that we all live by,” Goldfein said, when asked to comment on the presence of Chinese warships near the Philippines. “So, anybody in the region that violates those, it’s concerning.”
Transcripts of Goldfein’s comments were distributed to reporters by the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Goldfein’s statement comes shortly after the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan visited the Philippines earlier this month in a show of force meant to prop up its military ally of nearly 70 years.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, including areas close to its neighbors. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have territorial claims to the sea, a vital shipping route for world trade.