Malacañang on Monday accused former President Benigno Aquino III of starting the "militarization" of the South China Sea even as the Duterte administration insisted on its friendly overtures to China.
Duterte's spokesperson, Harry Roque, said the situation in the West Philippine Sea, the area being claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea, would not have worsened had the Aquino administration not deployed Manila's biggest warship to arrest Chinese fishermen seen poaching in the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
While the Philippines withdrew from the shoal after a tense standoff, China later took control of the shoal and forced fishermen from the Philippines to travel further for smaller catches.
"Kung tayo po ay gagamit ng dahas gaya ng ginawa ni Presidente Aquino na naging dahilan kung naroroon na ngayon ang mga Tsino sa Panatag - iyong pagpapadala ng isang Navy ship - ay magreresulta po iyan sa hidwaang militar na iniiwasan natin," Roque said at a news conference in Cagayan de Oro City.
"Kasi noong nakipag-away tayo, di ba malinaw, pinagtabuyan tayo sa Panatag. Hindi po iyan mabubura. Huwag na huwag nating kakalimutan na si Presidente Aquino ang unang nag-militarize niyan, dahil siya ang nagpadala ng Navy kaya tuluyan na hindi na umalis ang mga Tsino sa Scarborough o Panatag na tinatawag," he added.
Over the recent years, Beijing has taken a more assertive stance in the waters, beefing up its reclamation activities in disputed areas and transformed previously submerged features into artificial islands with multi-level buildings and runways.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, refused to provoke the Asian power into war and instead pushed for stronger trade and economic relations as well as the conduct of joint exploration of oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea, the area of the South China Sea being claimed by Manila.
Roque said Duterte would not apologize for his friendly stance towards China.
"Hindi po nag-a-apologize ang Pangulo sa kanyang polisiya sa Tsina. Itong pagkakaibigan po, siya pong dahilan kung hindi lang tayo nagkakaroon ng mas malawakang pagsasamahan sa bansang Tsina at itong bagong pagkakaibigan po ito rin ang magbibigay ng solusyon," the Palace spokesman said.
The United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration delivered in July 2016 a sweeping victory to the Philippines on the case it filed against China during the term of Aquino, declaring as illegal China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
It also declared that Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos, who were blocked by Chinese Coast Guard from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off Zambales.
Duterte, however, refused to flaunt the ruling and his rapprochement with China since taking office in June 2016 has been seen as a reason for Beijing to allow Philippine fishermen back into the waters around the shoal. —NB, GMA News