MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s China-friendly foreign policy is under unprecedented fire at home as tensions soar over Beijing’s perceived aggression in the South China Sea.
That became starkly apparent when Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr tweeted on Monday that China should “Get the f**k out” of Philippine-claimed waters, a less-than-diplomatic message on the presence of Chinese boats inside Manila’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.
Philippine-China bilateral relations are entering a crisis point with patience running thin in Manila even among Duterte’s top allies and cabinet secretaries. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has filed nearly 80 formal diplomatic protests in response to perceived Chinese incursions into its waters over the past five years.
Last week, the Philippine National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, an interagency body overseeing the country’s maritime security policy, claimed a “continued illegal presence” of several Chinese coast guard and militia vessels close to Philippine-occupied land features such as Second Thomas Shoal and Whitsun Reef.
A month earlier, as many 220 Chinese militia vessels swarmed Philippine-occupied land features in the contested Spratly island chain, sparking an unprecedented diplomatic crisis between the two sides.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana vowed that his country “will not waiver” in protecting its claims in the area, while Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin has gone as far as to lambast China as an “ugly oaf.”
The latest diplomatic tussle coincided with China’s muscle-flexing in adjacent waters just weeks after the US deployed several warships to the Western Pacific in a show of support to the Philippines, its Southeast Asian mutual defense treaty ally.
This week, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed the much-vaunted Shandong aircraft carrier, China’s first indigenously produced carrier launched in 2019, to the South China Sea for naval exercises.
China had earlier deployed its latest state-of-the-art Type 075 amphibious assault ship along with several other newly-launched vessels to its southern naval facilities in Hainan island, which looks out over the South China Sea.
“We hope the outside world can view it objectively and rationally,” said PLAN spokesman Gao Xiucheng over Twitter, portraying China’s latest naval exercises as “completely legitimate” and aimed at protecting the country’s territorial integrity in adjacent waters.
“We hope the outside world will view it in an objective and rational way. In the future, the Chinese navy will continue to hold similar exercises as planned,” he added.
In response, Philippine defense chief Lorenzana lambasted China and reiterated his country’s commitment to “conduct maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea [South China Sea], in Kalayaan Islands [Spratlys] by the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will continue.”
In response to China’s latest naval drills, the Philippine defense chief made it clear that his country won’t be intimidated and “we will stay where we are.”
“While we acknowledge that China’s military capability is more advanced than ours, this does not deter us from defending our national interest, and our dignity as a people, with all that we have,” he said.
The Department of Foreign affairs, which earlier threatened a Chinese embassy diplomat with expulsion following fiery exchanges with Lorenzana, argued that Beijing had no “law enforcement rights in the areas” and accused Chinese coast guard vessels of engaging in “shadowing, blocking, dangerous maneuver and radio challenges” against Philippine vessels in the fisheries-rich Scarborough Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’ EEZ.
“The unauthorized and lingering presence of these vessels is a blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty,” the DFA said in a formal statement this week, reiterating that the Philippines can and should continue with maritime patrols and drills in its waters as they constitute a “legitimate and routine act of a sovereign country in its territory.”
The same day, Locsin upped the ante by his own characteristic twitter diplomacy.
“China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see…,” said the rambunctious Filipino foreign affairs secretary on Twitter. “What are you doing to our friendship…You’re like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend,” he added.
Known for his controversial comments and Twitter outbursts, with Buzzfeed news site characterizing him a “massive Twitter troll”, Locsin will likely push for expansion of defense ties with Washington in tandem with Lorenzana, a former defense attache in Washington.
Duterte’s two leading cabinet members have advocated for restoration of the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a key defense deal that Duterte sought to nix amid growing human rights-related disagreements with Washington.
The Filipino president, however, has adamantly defended his friendly policy towards China, emphasizing Beijing’s assistance during the Covid-19 pandemic.
This week, Duterte received his first dose of China’s Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine amid much fanfare, a seemingly calculated effort to portray Beijing in a more positive light amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.
“For the record, we do not want war with China. China is a good friend. We owed it a big debt of gratitude, among others for the vaccines [it has donated to us],” said the Filipino president during his national address last week.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque also tried to downplay the recent war of words with China, especially the Philippine diplomatic chief’s Twitter outbursts, stating “we won’t meddle in the free speech rights of secretary Locsin.”
He also sought to shield Duterte from potential political fallout by claiming, “[i]t is not true that the President was ignored” by Beijing since the bulk of Chinese militia vessels have left Philippine waters following the month-long Whitsun Reef standoff “because of the President’s message and the warm relations we enjoy with China.”
Yet there are signs of growing cracks even within Duterte’s inner circle. Senator Manny Pacquiao, a long-term Duterte ally and potential presidential candidate next year, also criticized the president’s generally acquiescent policy towards China.
“For me, I find it lacking. I find it lacking compared to how he [Duterte] was before he ran for president. He should have continued that so that we get some respect,” said Pacquaio in Filipino during an online interview with reporters this week, a remarkable departure from his years of staunch support for Duterte.
“We heard what he said before the elections as he was campaigning that he was going to ride a jet ski carrying the Philippine flag to the Spratlys, so of course I felt it in my heart to vote for him because that’s the kind of president that we need,” the veteran boxer and global celebrity said, adding: “Someone who will fight for our country.”