President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday vowed that the government will “peacefully” resolve a dispute with China over its militia vessels occupying a reef within Philippine territory.
He assured that the country won’t use force against Chinese ships mooring at the Julian Felipe Reef, after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the Chinese embassy traded barbs over the issue.
“We will continue to resolve the issues at the Julian Felipe (Reef) through diplomatic channels and peaceful means,” Duterte said in a statement read by his spokesperson Secretary Harry Roque in a televised briefing.
The President also believes that the “differences” between Manila and Beijing won’t be an obstacle in its bilateral relations and “deepening cooperation” on pandemic response and vaccination efforts, Roque added.
Duterte, who has sought cordial ties with Beijing since assuming the presidency in 2016, earlier said he might visit China before his term ends to personally thank Chinese President Xi Jinping for donating one million doses of Covid-19 vaccines.
“Whatever differences we have with China will not define our bilateral relations,” Duterte said.
“It will not be an obstacle to the overall positive trajectory of our bilateral friendly relations and our deepening cooperation in our pandemic response, in our vaccine cooperation, and in our post-pandemic economic recovery,” he added.
Philippine officials said about 44 of the 200 Chinese vessels that were spotted at the reef refused to leave despite a diplomatic protest lodged by the Philippines against China.
The Julian Felipe Reef, which China calls Niu’e Jiao, is located about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, and within the country’s exclusive economic zone.
The Chinese Embassy earlier argued the ships were merely fishing vessels that took shelter near the area due to rough sea conditions — a claim Lorenzana questioned in a strongly-worded statement over the weekend.
He demanded the remaining 44 Chinese vessels to leave, insisting the good weather in the area.
In response, the Chinese embassy called Lorenzana’s statement “perplexing” and “unprofessional.” It also said it hopes authorities would avoid “unprofessional remarks which may further fan irrational emotions”.