By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporters
THE PHILIPPINES’ top envoy on Thursday ordered his agency to file another diplomatic protest against China for the continued presence of almost 300 ships in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
“Fire a diplomatic protest,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. tweeted.
He also criticized a Philippine Task for failing to alert the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) before issuing a statement on the Chinese ships.
Hundreds of Chinese militia vessels were still scattered around the Spratlys, both within and outside Manila’s exclusive economic zone, the task force said on Tuesday night.
In a statement, it said 287 Chinese ships were still in Philippine waters, many of them spotted near artificial islands built by China, while some were near islands occupied by Manila, based on patrols made on May 9.
Two Houbei class missile warships were also near Mischief Reef, while two Vietnamese logistics ships and a VN Coast Guard vessel were at Grierson Reef, it said.
Thirty-four Chinese ships also remained at Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines also claims.
The government would continue to defend its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the “West Philippine Sea,” the task force said, referring to areas of the waterway within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
It said Whitsun Reef, which the Philippines calls Julian Felipe, is within the country’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and is part of Philippine territory, counting presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr.’s earlier claim that the reef was outside the country’s ecozone.
Mr. Locsin on Tuesday said he alone should speak for President Rodrigo R. Duterte on foreign policy matters including the sea dispute with China.
Meanwhile, Mr. Roque said he was still allowed to talk about the South China Sea dispute after talking to the top Philippine envoy.
“We are fine,” he told a televised news briefing. “We agreed that I would continue to talk about international law as a field,” he said in Filipino.
Mr. Roque clarified that Whitsun Reef is part of the territorial sea generated by two high tide elevations occupied by China and Vietnam.
He said the reef, which is within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, is being claimed by the country based on a presidential decree issued by the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos.
Mr. Roque insists that government critics have been politicizing the presence of Chinese vessels near the reef
This was not the first time that Mr. Roque and Mr. Locsin clashed over the China issue.
In February, the envoy told Mr. Roque to “lay off” after he suggested that the Philippines should sue China at an international court for passing a law allowing its coast guard to fire at foreign vessels in the waterway.
The Philippines has filed several protests against China over the vessels’ lingering presence in the disputed sea.
This month, Mr. Locsin minced no words in telling the Chinese to get out of Philippine waters in the South China Sea, cussing at its neighbor for failing to reciprocate its goodwill.
The presidential palace later distanced itself from Mr. Locsin, with Mr. Roque saying Mr. Duterte does not approve the use of profanities in the field of diplomacy.
Mr. Locsin later apologized to his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after his expletive-laden tweet.
A United Nations arbitration court in 2016 rejected China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea. The Philippines under President Benigno S.C. Aquino III filed the lawsuit that critics said Mr. Duterte had failed to pursue.
Aside from the Philippines and China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim parts of the waterway.
Mr. Duterte had said the Philippines and China could settle the dispute peacefully. He also said China was a benefactor, citing vaccine donations and investments from its neighbor.
The tough-talking leader also said he never promised during his presidential campaign to retake the country’s territories in the South China Sea.
He rebuked retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio and former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who have spoken against his foreign policy on China, for forcing him to quarrel with his neighbor.
But Mr. Carpio belied the President’s claim, noting that during the campaign, he had promised to fight for Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea.
He said Mr. Duterte had promised to ride a jet ski to Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag there.
Mr. Duterte this week said he was just joking.