The continued presence inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone of hundreds of Chinese vessels that it believes are manned by militias has frustrated Manila and drawn concern from ally the United States, among others. “We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” said a statement from Duterte read by his spokesman Harry Roque. But it has since said it is keeping “all options open”.
An expert told Eagle News: “The Philippines department said on Thursday it’s keeping all its options open as a diplomatic row with Beijing grows over hundreds Chinese vessels in the contested South China Sea.
“Tensions over the resource-rich waters have heightened in recent weeks after more than 200 Chinese boats were detected in the Spratly islands where China and the Philippines have rival claims.
“The Philippines has said it is keeping all its options open including leveraging partnerships with other nations such as the US.”
It comes as China has maintained that Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines, was a traditional fishing ground where its vessels were seeking shelter from adverse weather.
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China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The toning down of the Philippine response comes a day after its foreign ministry said it would protest daily if China refused to withdraw boats that “blatantly infringe” on Philippine sovereign rights.
Duterte’s legal counsel warned of “unwanted hostilities”.
Defying public opinion, Duterte has sought to build an alliance with China and has been reluctant to confront its leadership having been promised billions of dollars of loans and investments, much of which have yet to materialise.
The Philippines’ defence chief said on Sunday China was looking to occupy more areas in the South China Sea, citing the continued presence of Chinese vessels that Manila believes are manned by militias in disputed parts of the strategic waterway.
“The continued presence of Chinese maritime militias in the area reveals their intent to further occupy (areas) in the West Philippine Sea,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement, using the local name for the South China Sea.
It was the second hostile statement by Lorenzana in two days as he repeated calls by the Philippines for the Chinese boats to leave Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, located within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Chinese diplomats have said the boats anchored near the reef – numbering more than 200 based on initial intelligence gathered by Philippine patrols – were sheltering from rough seas and that no militia were aboard.