Asia

Philippines' Duterte issues gag order on cabinet over South China Sea spat

MANILA (REUTERS) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte barred his cabinet from talking about the South China Sea in public on Monday (May 17) after weeks of strong rebukes by his ministers against China’s conduct in the contested waters.

Tensions between the Philippines and its giant neighbour have escalated since March, with Manila filing daily diplomatic protests over the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed portions of the South China Sea.

“This is my order now to the cabinet, and to all and sundry talking for the government, to refrain from discussing the West Philippine Sea with anybody,” Duterte said in a televised national address.

Manila refers to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.

“If we talk, we talk but just among us,” he said.

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) worth of ship-borne trade passes each year.

But in 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that that claim, which China bases on old maps, was inconsistent with international law.

Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has pursued warmer ties with China, setting aside the territorial spat in exchange for Beijing’s promise of billions of dollars in loans, aid and investment.

Duterte’s defence and foreign ministers and his legal adviser have taken strong positions against Beijing over the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels within Manila’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

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The Philippines believes the Chinese vessels are manned by militia, describing their presence as “swarming and threatening” as it continues to demand for the flotilla to be withdrawn immediately.

Duterte has rebuffed a call from China to withdraw vessels from disputed areas of the South China Sea and said he would not bow to pressure, even if it jeopardises his friendship with Beijing.

Beijing’s embassy in Manila was not immediately available for comment outside office hours. Chinese diplomats have said the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

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