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Duterte seeks restraint as Ayungin tension cools down

The Chinese ambassador assured me they will not be impeded. They asked that no escort should come with the ships, though



President Rodrigo Duterte has called out China for blocking two Philippine supply boats en route to Ayungin Shoal last week, saying the incident “does not speak well” of the relations between Manila and Beijing.

Duterte on Monday joined the special summit of state leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China, where he urged his counterparts to exercise “utmost self-restraint” and to “avoid the escalation of tensions” among sea claimants.

“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” he said at the summit held via videoconference.

The President made the statement a week after three Chinese Coast Guard vessels reportedly use water cannons against two local boats, which were supposed to transport food and other supplies to military personnel stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre, a navy vessel that serves as Marine outpost on the Ayungin shoal.

The Philippine government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, has since protested the incident.

The shoal is part of the hotly contested Spratlys, which the Philippines calls Kalayaan Island Group, and is well within the country’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana disclosed that two supply ships left mainland Palawan on Monday morning without escort, confident that they would not be blocked by Chinese militia boats anew.

“The Chinese ambassador assured me they will not be impeded. They asked that no escort should come with the ships, though,” the Defense chief told reporters.

Lorenzana said he and Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian have conducted dialogues since the incident in Ayungin last Tuesday.

A Navy plane will be at the “vicinity” instead, to monitor the mission and ensure the resupply vessels’ safety when they are in Ayungin, he said.

Last Thursday, National Security Adviser and National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea chair Hermogenes Esperon said ships of the Philippine Coast Guard and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources were tapped to “support” the resupply mission when it resumes.

Over the weekend, several countries, including the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Germany, expressed support to the Philippines over the incident near Ayungin.

“The resupply ships left Oyster Bay in Palawan this morning and will reach Sierra Madre tomorrow (Tuesday) morning,” Lorenzana said.

Both ships are the same ones that encountered China Coast Guard vessels, he said, adding that the one damaged by the water bombardment a week ago has been repaired.

Push for peaceful sea
Duterte, speaking at the ASEAN-China summit, reminded Beijing and other sea claimants in the South China Sea to pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international laws.

The President particularly singled out the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral award which, he said, provided legal clarity “pointing us to a just and fair solution to our disputes.”

“We must fully utilize these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability, and prosperity,” he added.

Duterte likewise told China to remain committed to the conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The binding code outlines the peaceful resolution of disputes in the resource-rich waters, as state leaders hope that no violent conflicts would arise among China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan — which have overlapping claims in the resource-rich area.

“There is simply no other way out of this colossal problem but the rule of law,” the President said.

The latest incident on Ayungin Shoal is just one in a series of China’s incursions in the Philippine waters.

Beijing ships similarly blocked Filipino vessels delivering food and supplies to Ayungin troops in September 2019, and the Philippines has so far filed at least 211 diplomatic notes against China over its aggression in the West Philippine Sea since Duterte came to office.

Over the years, China has expanded its presence in the Philippine waters, turning several reefs into artificial islands with military facilities, runways, and surface-to-air missiles.

In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration upheld the Philippines’ sovereign rights to its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone and rejected Beijing’s nine-dash line doctrine in the South China Sea.

China has refused to recognize the landmark ruling, which was based on UNCLOS, an international treaty that “lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources.”

Duterte still lauds China
President Duterte has tip-toed on the maritime dispute and has cultivated cordial ties with China since assuming the presidency in 2016, as he sought Beijing’s funding and support on his big-ticket infrastructure programs.

In his speech at the latest ASEAN-China summit, he again lauded China’s timely assistance to the regional bloc’s pandemic response efforts.

Duterte emphasized China was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner that provided life-saving vaccines and medical supplies amid the health crisis.

The Philippine leader also welcomed China’s ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, noting that enhanced multilateralism and connectivity are the drivers of inclusive and comprehensive recovery.

He then stressed the importance of ASEAN and China’s 30-year ties, saying that Beijing deserves its status as the regional bloc’s comprehensive strategic partner.