MANILA – The Philippine government, led by Rodrigo Duterte, has sometimes conducted its diplomacy in the most undiplomatic language with a false mouth.
In his relations with China, by contrast, Mr Duterte usually chooses honey over vinegar, fearing the effects of dilution. But that didn’t stop his top diploma from doing just that on Monday.
“China, my friend, how polite can I say that?” Let me see … “, wrote Teodoro Locin Jr., Mr. Duterte’s foreign minister, in a tirade on his personal Twitter account. Then, directly and vulgarly, he demanded that Beijing withdraw its ships from Manila̵
“What are you doing with our friendship?” He continued. “You. Not us. We’re trying. You. You’re like an ugly oaf, forcing your attention on a handsome man who wants to be a friend.”
Mr Locsin’s comments, an obscene and sometimes controversial presence on Twitter, served as a punctuation mark for a strong but more sober statement made on Monday by the Philippine Foreign Ministry.
He called on China to pull its ships out of the waters around the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal, saying Beijing had no “law enforcement in the regions.”
“The unauthorized and prolonged presence of these ships is a gross violation of the sovereignty of the Philippines,” he added, stressing that Philippine naval patrols and exercises in the regions were “a legitimate and routine act of a sovereign state on its territory.”
The department also protested against “shadows, blockages, dangerous maneuvers and radio challenges” by the Chinese Coast Guard against its Philippine counterpart around Scarborough Shoal last week.
China largely ignored Manila’s withdrawal demands, detaining dozens of vessels in Philippine waters, and Manila responded by filing diplomatic protests in front of Beijing on a daily basis.
The triangular chain of atolls and reefs, which is the subject of a dispute between the Philippines and China, is in the Manila economic zone, about 123 miles from Subic Bay on the island of Luzon.
But the Chinese government claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and has warned the Biden administration not to provoke conflict as it aggressively seeks to pursue the allegations.
In 2016, just as Mr Duterte took over the presidency, the Philippines referred its case against China to an international arbitral tribunal, which ruled in favor of the Philippines.
During his nearly five years in power, however, he mostly chose not to oppose China, hoping to retain the help of the giant neighbor. This position contradicts the way in which Mr Duterte treated Barack Obama and the European Union, both of whom were the targets of his verbal attacks. Mr. Duterte acknowledged his evil ways, saying at one point that God had advised him to reduce it.
Last week, Mr Duterte thanked China for supplying Covid-19 vaccines to the country, saying it was deeply indebted. And on Monday, he appears to have received his first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine, made in China, according to a live broadcast shared on Facebook by a Philippine MP.
Yet territorial issues are a kind of red line for the Philippines, even if Mr Duterte sometimes sounds almost apologetic in explaining his case.
He said Philippine patrols in the area would not stop, but that his country did not want to “disturb” China, especially with a “war”.
“There are things that are not really compromised, such as pulling back our patrols,” Mr Duterte said. “It’s difficult. I hope they understand, but I’m also interested in defending.”