MANILA – The Philippine government headed by the famous Rodrigo Duterte has sometimes conducted its diplomacy with the most undiplomatic language.
When it comes to China, on the other hand, Mr Duterte has generally chosen honey over vinegar, fearing the consequences of the lashes. But on Monday, that didn’t stop his top diplomat from doing just that.
“China, my friend, how politely can I say this? Let me see… ”, wrote Teodoro Locsin Jr., Minister of Foreign Affairs of Mr. Duterte, in a tirade on his personal Twitter account. Then, in direct and vulgar terms, he demanded that Beijing withdraw its ships from the waters of Manila in the South China Sea.
“What are you doing to our friendship?” He continued. “You. Not us. We’re trying. You. You’re like a bad jester who forces your attention on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend.
The comments by Mr. Locsin, a talkative and at times controversial Twitter presence, served as a punctuation mark to a strongly but more sober request made Monday by the Philippine Foreign Ministry.
He called on China to withdraw its ships from the waters around the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal, saying Beijing does not have “law enforcement rights in those areas.”
“The unauthorized and persistent presence of these ships is a flagrant violation of Philippine sovereignty,” he added, stressing that Philippine maritime patrols and training exercises in the areas were “a legitimate act and current of a sovereign country on its territory ”.
The department also protested the Chinese Coast Guard’s “sighting, blocking, dangerous maneuvers and radio challenges” against its Filipino counterpart around Scarborough Bank last week.
China has largely ignored requests to pull out of Manila, keeping dozens of ships in Philippine waters, and Manila has responded by filing daily diplomatic protests with Beijing.
The triangular chain of atolls and reefs that are the subject of the Philippines-China dispute lies well in the Manila Economic Zone, about 123 miles off Subic Bay on Luzon Island.
But the Chinese government claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea, and it has drawn warnings from the Biden administration not to provoke conflict as it acts aggressively to pursue those claims.
In 2016, while Mr. Duterte assumed the presidency, the Philippines took the case against China to an international arbitration tribunal and ruled in favor of the Philippines.
During his nearly five years in power, however, he mostly chose not to upset China, hoping to keep help from the giant neighbor. This position contrasts with the way Mr. Duterte treated Barack Obama and the European Union, both of which were the targets of his verbal attacks. Mr. Duterte acknowledged his profane ways, saying at one point that God advised him to calm him down.
Last week, Mr Duterte profusely thanked China for delivering the Covid-19 vaccines to the country, saying he was deeply indebted. And on Monday, he appeared to be receiving his first dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, according to a live feed shared on Facebook by a Filipino lawmaker.
Still, territorial issues are sort of a red line for the Philippines, though at times Mr Duterte seemed to almost apologize in explaining his case.
He said that Filipino patrols in the region would not cease, but that his country did not want to “trouble” China, especially with “a war”.
“There are things that are not really compromised, like withdrawing our patrols,” Duterte said. “It’s difficult. I hope they understand, but I also have my country’s interest to protect.”
At a cabinet meeting on Monday night, Duterte criticized critics who accused him of being gentle with Beijing.
“China remains our benefactor,” he said, “and just because we’re in conflict with China doesn’t mean we have to be rude and disrespectful.”