MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged to peacefully resolve a diplomatic row with China over the disputed South China Sea, his spokesman said on Tuesday (April 6) in a measured response after days of loud reprimands from his ministers and generals.
The continued presence inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone of hundreds of Chinese ships which it says are occupied by militias has frustrated Manila and raised concern among the US ally, among others.
“We will continue to resolve Julian Felipe’s problems through diplomatic and peaceful means,” said a statement from Duterte read by his spokesman Harry Roque.
China argued that Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines, was a traditional fishing spot where its vessels sought shelter from the elements.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
READ: Philippines raises temperature over China over boats massing in South China Sea
The weakening of the Philippine response comes a day after its foreign ministry said it would protest daily if China refuses to remove ships that “flagrantly violate” Philippine sovereign rights. Duterte’s legal advisor warned of “unwanted hostilities”.
Defying public opinion, Duterte has sought to build an alliance with China and has been reluctant to confront its leaders after pledging billions of dollars in loans and investments, much of which has yet to materialize.
He has repeatedly said that the Philippines is powerless to prevent China from occupying geographic areas and that questioning its activities would risk causing a war that his country would lose.
In Duterte’s statement, he said the differences in the South China Sea would not be an obstacle to friendly relations and cooperation in the response to the pandemic, including vaccines and economic recovery.
The Philippines has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Asia, but has struggled to obtain vaccines.
It has purchased 25 million doses of vaccine from Chinese Sinovac, and the two million vaccines it has so far make up the majority of its vaccine inventory.
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