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South China Sea

Philippines and China intensify war of words over South China Sea

Manila slams Beijing anew for not withdrawing ships in disputed waters

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows Chinese vessels in the Whitsun Reef located in the disputed South China Sea on March 23. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

MANILA -- The Philippines on Monday accused Beijing of promoting a "false narrative" of its "illegitimate" claims in the disputed South China Sea, marking Manila's latest move in a weekslong feud that has strained diplomatic ties.

Philippine and Chinese embassy officials have been locked in a war of words since last month over the presence of nearly 200 Chinese ships which were first detected in the Whitsun Reef before spreading out to other areas in the disputed waters.

Beijing has largely ignored Manila's demands for the vessels to leave, saying Whitsun Reef is part of China's territory. That has raised the ire of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who over the weekend, accused Beijing of planning to occupy new features in the South China Sea.

On Monday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs backed Lorenzana and reiterated his call for the withdrawal of the ships, which Manila's military says are part of China's "maritime militia."

"For every delay, the Republic of the Philippines will lodge a diplomatic protest," the foreign ministry said in a statement, which came just days after Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. met Foreign Minister Wang Yi in China last week.

Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has set aside the maritime dispute, embraced China and President Xi Jinping as an economic ally and distanced himself from the U.S. (Source photos by AP)

Beijing did not immediately react to the statement, which was triggered by a Chinese embassy spokesperson's statement on Saturday, calling Lorenzana's remarks "perplexing" and "unprofessional."

The Philippine foreign ministry said it "strongly deplores" the spokesperson's remarks. It said "Chinese embassy officials are reminded that they are guests of the Philippine government" and "must accord respect to Philippine government officials."

Manila said the Chinese embassy statement "contained blatant falsehoods" such as claims that the Chinese vessels were sheltering from "adverse weather conditions when there were none" and the "nonexistence of maritime militia in the area."

Manila also attacked the embassy for attempting to promote "the clearly false narrative of China's expansive and illegitimate claims" in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

Whitsun Reef is located 175 nautical miles from the Philippine province of Palawan and 638 nautical miles off China's southern Hainan island, according to Manila's statement which also raised the country's 2016 arbitration victory that invalidated China's expansive claims of the South China Sea.

Beijing did not take part and never recognized the arbitration. Meanwhile, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping claims over the vital waterway rich in fisheries and energy resources.

Satellite view of fishing vessels in the Whitsun Reef, which Manila calls the Julian Felipe Reef, in this Maxar image taken March 23.   © Reuters

Manila's vocal stance on the Whitsun Reef issue shows "a deep suspicion" within the Philippine government that China intends to control Whitsun, similar to its takeover of Mischief Reef in the 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, a geopolitical expert said.

"They (Philippine officials) are seeing the footprints leading to a Chinese seizure again of this feature and transforming it into an artificial island then possibly a garrison," said Renato de Castro, international studies professor at De la Salle University in Manila.

"It is also a matter of showing to the Filipino people that we will not allow another Scarborough Shoal seizure," De Castro added.

China has not reclaimed Scarborough Shoal, which is also located within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. But in recent years, Beijing had transformed several reefs into artificial islands equipped with military infrastructure.

Chinese dredging vessels in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this image taken from a video shot by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015.   © Reuters

President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian over the latest maritime feud last month, but the president has not publicly spoken about the new developments.

Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte has set aside the maritime dispute, embraced China as an economic partner and distanced himself from the U.S., Manila's security ally.

China, in turn, promised billions of dollars of investments and recently donated 1 million doses of COVID vaccines.

But amid the continuing Chinese activities in disputed waters, Duterte decided to renegotiate the Philippines-U. S. visiting forces agreement, walking back an earlier decision to abrogate the vital deal that facilitates military exercises between the two allies. U.S. has backed the Philippines in the Whitsun Reef issue.

"This might also be a signal that the administration is changing its policy of appeasement with China... which is a failure," De Castro said.

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