Citing an order by President Rodrigo Duterte, Secretary of Defence Delfin Lorenzana on Monday said the Philippines would not join the navies of other countries, like the US, in maritime drills in the South China Sea for fear of raising tension in the area.
He told an online press briefing: “President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, [within a 22km] distance from our shores, [as defined by the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea].
“We cannot exercise with them in the South China Sea.
“If one country’s action is considered as belligerent, another tension will normally rise, so I hope that all the parties in this exercise will have, will work on their actions there, to exercise prudence and carefulness so that there will be no miscalculations that could further increase the tension.”
The US, a long-time ally of the Philippines, has sent its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in the South China Sea in recent weeks, conducting naval exercises and freedom of navigation operations.
Duterte recently drew flak for saying that he was “futile” and “cannot do anything” to counter China’s perceived aggression in the South China Sea, virtually raising the white flag in surrender of Philippine sovereignty in Scarborough Shoal which the president said was already “occupied” by China.
Instead, he said the Philippines should just pursue “diplomatic endeavours”, without elaborating.
China has laid claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters in the exclusive economic zones of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Duterte has said the Philippines could not afford to go to war with China just to protect its sovereignty.
In response to the Philippine president, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Wang Wenbin stressed that all nations are endowed with the right to pursue an independent foreign policy and to shape foreign relations in line with its national interests.
He said: “We appreciate President Duterte’s remarks and stand ready to properly resolve maritime disputes with the Philippines through friendly consultations to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea and the entire region.”
But former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio disputed Duterte’s statement, saying the Philippines’ neighbours, which face a similar dilemma, are upholding their dignity as sovereign nations without going to war.
Duterte took a pivot to China when he became president in 2016 supposedly in exchange for loans and economic aid. His officials described it as a shift to an independent foreign policy, but not kowtowing to China.
He has also swept aside an international tribunal ruling that declared China’s mythical nine-dash line claim to the whole of South China Sea as invalid and its incursions into the maritime territories of the Philippines and other countries as illegal.
Lorenzana defended Duterte’s remarks, saying that the president was just adopting a “realistic and pragmatic approach”.
He said: “There are so many countries who are getting involved here in South China Sea, but they have different interests than the Philippines . . . Their main concern is freedom of navigation.”
He said, though, that the Philippines supports freedom of navigation in the South China Sea because “it also coincides with our wish.
“But if we study further, we have other issues in the South China Sea like how are we going to exercise our sovereign rights to exploit the resources in the South China Sea,” Lorenzana said.
“It looks like these other countries won’t intervene” on the matter of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, he said. “It’s only between us and China.”
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK