A U.S. presence in Asia bolsters Philippine interests, Manila’s top diplomat said Wednesday, while underlining that the Philippines would not stop patrolling the South China Sea despite Beijing calling such operations an “illegal provocation.”
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said the government would not dismiss any means to protect the nation’s sovereignty and freedom, according to a transcript from his office of an interview with ANC, a Philippine news channel.
“We’re going to continue our patrol[s] because it’s ours,” Locsin said. “They will continue to call it an illegal provocation, but that’s their right – that’s the free world.”
He was responding to a question regarding China’s complaints about Philippine actions in the South China Sea.
In the same interview, he said the Philippines had rejected calls to "keep foreign powers out of the region" during discussions on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
“Yes, we need the U.S. presence in Asia,” Locsin said. “[O]n the military aspect, we need them because our whole defense posture depends on the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
Still, Locsin said, he would not turn his back on China.
“For me, first and foremost are Philippine interests,” he said.
“I have repeatedly said – even while affirming the necessity of American military presence in the region and hopefully, its growing economic presence – I’ve also said that I will not turn against economic opportunities offered by China,” he said. “Opportunities that, in fact, offer the prospect for mutual progress.”
Locsin’s comments came days after his department on Aug. 20 filed a diplomatic complaint against China for its alleged harassment of Filipino patrol aircraft and for confiscating devices of local fishermen.
Philippine officials said fishermen had complained of Chinese ships blocking their boats from hauling their catch, especially in the Scarborough Shoal. The shoal lies just west of the main Philippine island of Luzon in the South China Sea.
Beijing effectively seized control of the triangle-shaped reef in 2012 during a territorial standoff with the Philippines, while President Benigno Aquino III was in office. Aquino filed a complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration over boundaries in the South China Sea.
In July 2016, shortly after Rodrigo Duterte succeeded Aquino as president, the court ruled in favor of Manila’s claim to the shoal. China rejected the verdict and has since ignored it.
Duterte has refused to enforce the tribunal’s ruling and instead sought closer bilateral ties with Beijing while distancing from the U.S., its traditional ally. The president has said repeatedly that he was powerless to enforce the ruling because of Beijing’s military might.
In response to last week’s diplomatic protest, Beijing said the Chinese coast guard had acted well within its mandate, as China urged Manila to stop what it said were provocative activities.
Citing historical rights, China has established a so-called nine-dash line claiming nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.
Last weekend, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that China’s territorial claim was a fabrication.
“Their so-called historical rights over an enclosed nine-dash line don’t exist except in their imaginations,” Lorenzana said.
Earlier this week, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque downplayed the tension, saying Duterte would not give an inch of territory to Beijing.
“Our diplomats lodge protests like that if we believe our sovereign rights are violated,” Roque said, according to transcripts released by the presidential palace.
Last week’s diplomatic protest was at least the third bilateral one filed against China this year.
Manila filed two in April against perceived aggressive actions by China. The protests were over the unilateral creation of two new administrative districts in the South China Sea and about an incident in February where a Chinese navy boat pointed a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship near the Philippine-occupied Rizal Reef.
US sanctions Chinese firms
Meanwhile, the U.S. on Wednesday announced sanctions against 24 Chinese companies and individuals linked to those firms over their alleged roles in constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The companies were placed on the U.S. Commerce Department’s Entity List, which restricts exports to businesses abroad because of their “activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”
The sanctions follow a U.S. declaration that China’s “historical claims” to the South China Sea are unlawful.
Locsin’s comments on Wednesday came two days after a Chinese candidate was elected to be one the 21 judges on the International Tribunal for Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Duan Jielong, the Chinese ambassador to Hungary, ran unopposed.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said Duan’s victory would not affect the 2016 ruling by an international tribunal favoring the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea.
“The [South China Sea] arbitration case is already decided and in international arbitration there is no process of review of reversal of decided cases,” Batongbacal told BenarNews, adding ITLOS is “an entirely separate body from the ad hoc arbitral tribunal … that decided the Philippines versus China case.”