Protesters march in front of the Chinese consular office in Manila in a file photo. Photo: AFP

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly praised his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping for his role in providing medical and other Covid-19 assistance to the virus-hit nation. It’s not clear, however, that’s how his own armed forces or countrymen view the situation.  

But Duterte’s blandishments stand in stark contrast to charges made by his top brass, witnessed in a new flare up over an until now unreported incident in February in the South China Sea involving a Philippine warship on a routine surveillance and resupply operation in the Spratly islands.

In mid-February, the Philippine Navy’s BRP Conrado Yap, the Southeast Asian country’s first modern corvette, detected “a radar contact of a gray-colored vessel,” which was later identified as a Chinese warship with bow number 514, according to the Philippine military’s West Command.

It’s not clear whether the Chinese vessel belongs to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or, more likely, the armada of militia vessels operating in the area under Beijing’s command.  The Chinese vessel was reportedly equipped with a “gun control director” which “track targets and makes all the main guns ready to fire in under a second,” the Philippine military said.

A Philippine official, speaking on condition of anonymity with The Associated Press, accused the Chinese warship of pointing “fire control radar” at the Philippine vessel, an aggressive maneuver which locks weapons on a target prior to firing shots.

Another Filipino official described the near-encounter as “very hostile” and “unprovoked”, even though there were no actual fire exchanges.

Sensing public outrage, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin stepped up criticism of China, lashing out at what he described as “violations of international law and Philippine sovereignty.”

“At 5:17 pm today, the Chinese Embassy received two diplomatic protests: 1. on the pointing of a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in PH waters and 2. declaring parts of a Philippine territory as part of Hainan province,” the Philippines’ top diplomat announced over Twitter on April 22.

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Underscoring the sensitivity of the issue, Locsin said that he “expect[s] that no one else in the government will comment on it because they are not competent to do it,” and that “[o]nly the President himself can reveal these notes of his alter ego the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and rule thereon.”

The following day, the Filipino top diplomat adopted even harsher language by warning China: “Well we passed the test; I slapped them back. Don’t even dream of pointing anything at my country…unless you’re looking for a fight. I know my soldiers.” 

It’s not clear why news of the incident was made public in recent days. The protest has, however, coincided with a popular backlash against a promotional video released by the China Embassy in Manila which sought to portray Beijing as a benevolent neighbor providing much-needed medical assistance amid the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Entitled Iisang Dagat (One Shared Sea), with no less than Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian writing the lyrics, the video provoked widespread fury as ordinary Filipinos lashed out at the “propaganda video”, which received more than 150,000 dislikes on YouTube.

The reference to “one shared sea” particularly irked many Filipinos, who saw a thinly-veiled attempt by China to legitimize its claims and expansionism in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and claimed land features in the South China Sea.

This month, the Department of Foreign Affairs also filed protests against China’s announcement of new administrative regions for its contested claims in the South China Sea, including over Philippine-claimed islands in the Spratly island chain.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has praised China’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. Photo: Facebook

Netizens criticized China as an opportunistic imperialist power, with one cheeky netizen retorting, “What kind of friend steals from his neighbor while he is in hospital!??”

Top Philippine defense officials, however, have been more cautious in their public statements.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon announced that the country’s National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea, an interagency body coordinating the country’s policy in the South China Sea, will convene a special meeting on the incident to determine a next course of action.

“We will meet via video conference…We will discuss other developments there,” said the Philippines top security adviser in Filipino, though details of the meeting are expcted to remain confidential. 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana acknowledged that the Chinese warship’s actions was “a bit offensive,” but maintained that, speaking in a mixture of Tagalog and English, “They were only trying to test our reaction and we have already filed our protest.”

Bilateral tensions were already rising. Earlier this month, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) adopted particularly tough language in condemning China’s apprehension and sinking of Vietnamese vessels in a contested sea area.

In that instance, the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) warned China against “provocations” that “usually end in defeat of aggression or a devastating price of victory.”