President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed confidence that the Philippines’ apparent conflict with China over Chinese ships’ presence in Julian Felipe Reef would not hinder the two nations’ cooperation to fight COVID-19.
In an online press briefing, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte’s stance is to resolve the issues concerning Julian Felipe Reef through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means.
Duterte, Roque said, was confident that the ongoing maritime dispute between the two countries would not have an adverse impact on their resolve to help each other in defeating COVID-19.
“Whatever differences we have with China will not define our bilateral relations and will not be an obstacle to the overall positive trajectory of our bilateral friendly relations and our deepening cooperation in pandemic response, including vaccine cooperation and in post-pandemic economic recovery,” Roque said, quoting Duterte.
National Task Force against COVID-19 and vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. echoed Duterte’s position, saying the controversy surrounding Julian Felipe Reef as an issue separate from the COVID-19 response.
“The Chinese government is joining us in fighting against Covid-19…The issue on the West Philippine Sea is another issue),” Galvez, who joined Roque at the press conference, said in a mix of English and Filipino.
The conciliatory words from the Palace came as an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the expulsion of a diplomat could be part of the diplomatic actions that the government might consider.
This was after the Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement impugning Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as “unprofessional” for demanding the immediate pullout of Chinese vessels in the Julian Felipe Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
“Normally, this is part of the range of diplomatic courses of actions, but I have no confirmation yet,” Foreign Affairs Executive Director Ivy Banzon-Abalos said, in a message sent to reporters.
This came after the Department of Foreign Affairs on Monday denounced the Chinese embassy’s attempt to impugn Lorenzana by calling his statement demanding the withdrawal of Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe Reef “unprofessional.”
The DFA reminded the Chinese Embassy that they are “guests” of the Philippine government and “must at all times observe protocol and accord respect to Philippine officials.”
The DFA denounced what it called “blatant falsehoods” being peddled by the Chinese embassy as well as its attempt to promote “false narratives” of its expansive and illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.
“Julian Felipe Reef is part of the Kalayaan Island Group and lies in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of the Philippines. It is located 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza town in Palawan and 638,229 nautical miles from Hainan Island,” the DFA said.
The Philippines on March 21 lodged a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of around 200 Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reed in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
China earlier said the spotted Chinese boats off Julian Felipe Reef were merely taking refuge due to rough sea conditions—even though the weather was fine.
Former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario on Tuesday backed the filing of a demarche to protest through diplomatic channels the presence of the Chinese militia vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef.
“Perhaps it is time to explore fully all possible options for other concrete actions with the United Nations, more so now, with the recent Western powers' manifestations for the rule of law to prevail in line with the tribunal decision,” Del Rosario said, in a statement.
The former DFA chief recalled that last year, President Duterte at the United Nations even stated the Philippine position on the West Philippine Sea and the 2016 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Arbitral Tribunal decision where the Permanent Court of Arbitration invalidated China’s massive claims over the South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the WPS.
On the plan of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.’s to issue a demarche, Del Rosario said: “One possible action to calibrate subsequent actions is to inform the United Nations formally through the Secretary General.”
But Senator Panfilo Lacson said filing diplomatic protests may not be too helpful anymore as China continues to ignore them.
Lacson also said China would not be so dismissive if the Philippines and its allies, both in the Asia-Pacific and the west, show they can band together.
He cited the need to maintain a balance of power in the region, including the West Philippine Sea.
Rep. Robert Ace Barbers of Surigao del Norte, meanwhile said the government must demand compensation from China for the damage its vessels have caused in the reefs in the West Philippine Sea.
Barbers also urged the leaders of both Houses of Congress, Speaker Lord Allan Velasco and Senate President Vicente Sotto III "to spearhead the call of the Filipino people in the spirit and form of
Bayanihan 4 or 'We Fight As One' in demanding explanation, compensation and immediate withdrawal of the Chinese ships and the dismantling of the structures built by China in Philippine territory."