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Chinese vessels anchored at Whitsun Reef. Photo: National Task Force-West Philippine Sea / AFP

South China Sea: Manila gets tough on Beijing over Whitsun Reef row, earning praise from even Duterte’s critics

  • The swarming of Chinese vessels in the South China Sea could signal a shift in the pro-Beijing position that Manila has cultivated for five years
  • President Rodrigo Duterte’s aide has warned that China’s ‘territorial incursions’ could trigger ‘unwanted hostilities’ between the two nations

In a testy message to the Chinese embassy on Monday, Manila warned it would file diplomatic protests for every day that Beijing’s maritime militia ships continued to linger near the Whitsun Reef, which sits within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.

The warning came as Duterte’s aide Salvador Panelo said the incident was straining ties and could “trigger unwanted hostilities” between the two nations. “We can negotiate on matters of mutual concern and benefit, but make no mistake about it – our sovereignty is non-negotiable,” he said in a statement.

The messages were the latest in a series of acrimonious exchanges between Philippine officials and the Chinese embassy that could signal a shift in the pro-Beijing position that the Duterte administration has cultivated in the last five years.

The Philippines revealed two weeks ago that more than 200 Chinese vessels, including those from the maritime militia, had been moored near the reef since early March.

Defence officials were concerned that Beijing would take the feature and build an artificial island and then a base, as it had done in 2012 with the Scarborough Shoal, another island within the Philippines’ EEZ.


Philippines sounds alarm over 200 Chinese ships in the South China Sea

Philippines sounds alarm over 200 Chinese ships in the South China Sea

The war of words began on Saturday, when Lorenzana called on Chinese maritime militia vessels to depart the Whitsun Reef. Rubbishing Beijing’s explanation that the ships had been sheltering from bad weather, Lorenzana said: “Get out already.”

In response, the Chinese embassy said the remarks were “perplexing” and insisted that the vessels were in Chinese waters.

“The waters around Niu’e Jiao has been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years,” it said, using Beijing’s name for the Whitsun Reef.

“It is completely normal for Chinese fishing vessels to fish in the waters and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions. Nobody has the right to make wanton remarks on such activities.”

Will the Whitsun Reef dispute come between Beijing and Manila?

The argument continued on Sunday, with Lorenzana condemning “the utter disregard by the Chinese embassy … of international law”.

On Monday, the Philippine foreign affairs department said it strongly denounced the Chinese embassy’s attempt to “impugn the secretary of national defence” and its attempt “to promote the clearly false narrative of China’s expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea”.

It warned that Beijing’s continued deployments showed a “lack of good faith in the ongoing negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea between Asean and China”, since both parties had agreed to maintain the status quo while negotiating the code. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has cultivated close ties with China since he came to power in 2016. Photo: Reuters

“Chinese embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government and as guests must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine government officials,” the foreign affairs department said.

The strong words marked a departure from the Duterte government’s pro-Chinese attitude. The president has gone out of his way to cultivate close relations with the embassy in Manila since taking power in 2016.

In 2018, Duterte had said he “loves” Xi Jinping because “he understands my problem and he is willing to help”. Last year, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian even wrote a song to celebrate relations between the two countries, although it was panned by Filipinos.

The shift in tone over the Whitsun Reef row has won backing from even Duterte’s critics.

Spratly Islands, Diaoyu, Bay of Bengal: is a storm brewing in Asia-Pacific waters?

“It’s about time such kinds of statements should be issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs,” said Lauro Baja, the Philippines’ former permanent representative to the United Nations.

“There is now a really blatant intention by China against the Julian Felipe Reef and it’s about time we drew the line,” he added, using Manila’s name for the Whitsun Reef.

“If we don’t have any strong reaction, then [Beijing] will just say there is no adverse reaction from the Philippine government; that it’s the status quo of the Duterte-Xi Jinping love fest – and soon, they will be on Reed Bank,” said Baja, referring to an area within the Philippines’ EEZ that is rich in oil and gas.


Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

Explained: the history of China’s territorial disputes

The new opposition coalition 1Sambayan (One Nation), led by former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, former supreme court justice Antonio Carpio and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales – who have all opposed Duterte’s South China Sea stance – also came out on Monday supporting Manila officials.

“We in the 1Sambayan strongly support Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr in their firm and principled stand in defending Philippine territory and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea against Chinese encroachment,” the group said, using Manila’s name for the South China Sea.

Baja said he believed such messages from Manila’s aides were the result of “signals from Washington and Duterte”.

US backs Philippines in stand-off over South China Sea reef

On March 31, after Duterte’s national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon and his American counterpart Jake Sullivan spoke by phone, the US National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said both advisers had “discussed their shared concerns regarding the recent massing of People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia vessels at Whitsun Reef”.

“Mr Sullivan underscored that the United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order, and reaffirmed the applicability of the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty in the South China Sea,” Horne said in a statement.

Both officials then agreed that the two treaty allies would continue to work closely in responding to challenges in the South China Sea, she added.

Additional reporting by Reuters