By J.C. Gotinga and Marielle Lucenio
The Philippines will maintain patrols in contested waters of the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday, as he barred members of his cabinet from speaking publicly about maritime frictions between Manila and Beijing.
Also on Tuesday, the Philippine leader signed off on a law to renew a 25-year franchise for DITO Telecommunity Corp., a China-backed telecoms firm.
“Our vessels will continue to patrol relevant areas to firmly assert what is ours,” Duterte said in a statement, which presidential spokesman Harry Roque read out.
“The Philippine Navy, the Philippine Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will be where they need to be.”
While Manila would not waver in its position, the Philippines must be willing to resolve disputes peacefully and through diplomatic means, the statement said.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs as lead agency will be at the forefront in advancing our interest, harnessing time-honored principles of international law,” Duterte’s statement said.
Meanwhile, during a weekly cabinet meeting that was broadcast live on national TV on Monday night, the president imposed a gag order on cabinet members.
“So, this is my order now to the Cabinet and to all – all and sundry … talking for the government to refrain discussing … [the] West Philippine Sea … with anybody,” the president said, according to a transcript. The West Philippine Sea is how Filipinos refer to areas of the South China Sea claimed by Manila.
He issued the order amid criticism against China over the “swarming” of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats and maritime militia ships in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
On May 4, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. apologized to the ambassador from Beijing after he had posted an expletive-laden tweet telling the Chinese to leave the Philippine territory.
Since then, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. reported that Philippine patrols on May 9 had spotted 287 Chinese Maritime Militia ships in and around Manila’s EEZ.
While the government has not released updated figures, it continues filing daily diplomatic protests over the lingering presence of Chinese ships.
Duterte has been criticized domestically for being seen as soft on maritime disputes with China, with which his administration has pursued bilateral ties.
In defending himself from the criticism, Duterte has often cited concerns about China’s military might.
“Even if we put our entire navy’s ships there, we will not start a war because we cannot afford it. I was just being frank to everybody. And China understood us,” Duterte told Juan Ponce Enrile, the former president of the Philippine Senate, whom he invited to Monday night’s cabinet meeting.
On Tuesday, critics of the administration welcomed Duterte’s fresh statement on the South China Sea dispute.
“Diplomacy should be our first, if not best, option,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, an independent, who has often criticized the government.
He said Manila should also “build stronger alliances with other militarily powerful and capable countries who may be willing to help our cause.”
Opposition Sen. Francis Pangilinan noted that Filipino fishermen already had lost their livelihood because of Chinese incursions into Philippine waters.
“It’s one thing to be friendly and diplomatic, it’s another thing to be subservient and quiet,” said Pangilinan, a former presidential adviser on fisheries on agriculture. “China is occupying key areas in our exclusive economic zone.”
Beijing claims the South China Sea almost in its entirety, including up to the shores of other claimants. It has allowed its fishermen, backed by militias, to fish in areas that are considered in the EEZ of other claimants.
Five Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims or maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, in addition to Beijing’s sweeping claims in the waterway.
While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.
License for telecoms firm extended
Meanwhile, the Philippine president signed a law renewing the franchise of DITO Telecommunity Corp. for 25 years.
The law, Republic Act No. (RA) 11537, extends DITO’s franchise which would have expired on April 24, 2023, unless revoked or canceled, according to the presidential palace.
DITO began commercial operations in selected areas in March and consists of Filipino firms Chelsea Logistics and Udenna Corp. along with China Telecom, which owns a 40 percent stake.
The two local firms are based in Davao, a city in the southern Philippines that is Duterte’s hometown. The firms are controlled by businessman Dennis Uy, a Duterte supporter.
DITO faced accusations last year that it would be allowed to install communications equipment including at sites inside Philippine military bases.
The Senate held inquiries into DITO’s proposed services while company officials denied allegations that the firm could be used by China for espionage.
Previously, the telecommunications sector was controlled by two dominant carriers, Globe Telecommunications and SMART/Philippine Long Distance Co.
Jojo Riñoza in Manila contributed to this report.