Duterte in Philippines calls for peaceful resolution of Chinese boat standoff
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged to peacefully resolve a diplomatic dispute with China over the disputed South China Sea, his spokesman said on Tuesday, in a measured response after days of fierce reprimands by his ministers and generals.
The continued presence inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone of hundreds of Chinese ships that it says are piloted by militias has frustrated Manila and raised concern among the US ally, among others.
“We will continue to resolve Julian Felipe’s problems through diplomatic and peaceful means,” said a statement from Duterte read by his spokesman Harry Roque.
China argued that Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines, was a traditional fishing spot where its vessels sought shelter from the elements.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The weakening of the Philippine response comes a day after its foreign ministry said it would protest daily if China refuses to remove ships that “blatantly violate” the sovereign rights of the Philippines. Duterte’s legal advisor warned of “unwanted hostilities”.
Defying public opinion, Duterte sought to forge an alliance with China and was reluctant to confront its leaders, having been promised billions of dollars in loans and investments, most of which have yet to materialize.
He has repeatedly stated that the Philippines is powerless to prevent China from occupying elements and that challenging its activities could risk a war his country would lose.
In Duterte’s statement, he said the differences in the South China Sea would not be an obstacle to friendly relations and cooperation in the response to the pandemic, including vaccines and economic recovery.
The Philippines is experiencing one of Asia’s worst COVID-19 epidemics, but has faced challenges securing vaccine supplies.
It has purchased 25 million doses of vaccine from Chinese Sinovac, and the two million vaccines it has so far make up the majority of its vaccine inventory.
Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty