Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on Wednesday downplayed President Rodrigo Duterte's public rebuke of China over its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, saying his comments signify "stronger ties" between Manila and Beijing.
"I interpret it as even a closer relationship because the closer you are, the more you can tell each other your feelings," Cayetano told reporters in an ambush interview at the sidelines of a global migration forum in Manila.
In a rare criticism of China, Duterte, who has forged closer relationship with Beijing, said its claim to airspace above its newly built man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea is "wrong" and that China should "temper" its behavior.
“You cannot create an island, it’s man-made, and you say that the air above these artificial islands is yours," Duterte said. “That is wrong because those waters are what we consider international sea."
Under international law, Duterte said “the right of innocent passage is guaranteed" and that no permission is needed to sail through the open seas.
Cayetano said Duterte was reacting to the recent exchange of radio warnings between Chinese and Philippine militaries in the South China Sea.
Cayetano said he and other security and defense officials briefed the President on the situation and told him that such incidents are "routine."
But Duterte, Cayetano said, "still gave us instructions that regardless if it's routine, regardless of good intentions...that's not how friends treat each other."
"So he asked me please talk to your counterparts. We've worked out many things in the past. He's confident we could work this out," Cayetano said.
Duterte's criticisms against China, Cayetano added, only showed the President's commitment to uphold the country's territory and sovereign rights.
"He's never changed, he's never wavered in our territorial claims, in our claim for sovereign rights," Cayetano said.
"He's not also changed that he wants it (the disputes) to be just one part of our relationship with China."
Compared to his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, Duterte made friendly overtures to China.
His decision to set aside the country's arbitration victory over South China Sea territories has improved Manila’s relations with China and allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the Scarborough Shoal as promise of huge development assistance poured in from Beijing.
Despite friendly ties with Duterte, China’s aggressive stance in the tense waters persisted as it beefed up its reclamation activities in disputed areas and transformed previously submerged features into artificial islands with multi-level buildings and runways. It has also installed surface-to-air missiles in these areas, triggering concerns from countries, such as the US, Japan and Australia.
The Duterte administration has avoided criticizing such actions, but insisted that it will not concede a single inch of Philippine territory to China, which claims “indisputable sovereignty” over 90 percent of the waters.
Undersea gas, oil and mineral deposits have been discovered in several areas in the South China Sea. China has also claimed and developed some features within the West Philippine Sea. —JST, GMA News