MANILA — China has no business telling the Philippines what it can or cannot do within its waters, Manila’s defense ministry said on Wednesday, rejecting Beijing’s opposition to its ongoing coastguard exercises.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that claim, which Beijing bases on its old maps, was inconsistent with international law.
Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Beijing had “no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises” in the South China Sea because “their claims… have no basis”.
The Philippine coastguard and fisheries bureau started maritime exercises on Saturday inside the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), following an announcement of a boosting of its presence to counter the “threatening” presence of Chinese boats.
Responding to the exercises, China’s foreign ministry on Monday said the Philippines should “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”.
The Philippine defense ministry in a statement responded saying: “China has no business telling the Philippines what it can and cannot do.”
The Philippines has taken a tough tone in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its EEZ, reviving tensions that had eased due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s embrace of Beijing.
While the Philippines owed China a “huge debt” of gratitude for many things, including free COVID-19 vaccines, Duterte said on Wednesday he would not compromise on his country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.
“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” Duterte said in a late night address. “But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”
On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin ordered the filing of another diplomatic protest, one of more than a dozen recently, this time over China’s rebuke.
“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague. But we must not fail to protest,” Locsin said in a Tweet.
The exercises took place near a Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago and at the heavily contested Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal in 2016 said was a traditional fishing spot for several countries.
Lorenzana said it was China that was complicating matters by illegally occupying reefs it turned into artificial islands.
“It is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave,” he said. —Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty and Alison Williams