The Philippines said on Sunday that it won’t get embroiled in a fresh spat between the US and China involving Beijing’s protest of an American warship passing near a Chinese-controlled shoal also claimed by the Philippines.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr said that “the United States can take care of its own interest” and added “we do not wish to be part of a US-China intramural” in the disputed South China Sea.
The Chinese government had on Saturday accused the US of trespassing in its territorial waters when a US guided missile destroyer sailed near Scarborough Shoal to promote freedom of navigation in the disputed waters.
The Philippines also claims the shoal, which is a tiny, uninhabited reef that China seized from the Philippines in 2012 after a tense maritime standoff.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has revived once-frosty relations with China since taking power in 2016 and often criticises US security policies.
He has rejected planned joint patrols by the US and Philippine navies in disputed South China Sea waters along with joint combat exercises that could offend China.
His predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, backed a continued US presence in the region to serve as a counterweight to China.
Under Aquino, the Philippines brought its disputes with China in the South China Sea to international arbitration in 2013 and overwhelmingly won the case three years later. China refused to participate and ignored the decision.
Duterte has refused to demand immediate Chinese compliance with the 2016 arbitration ruling, which invalidated China’s vast territorial claims to the South China Sea on historical grounds.
He has promised, however, to take up the arbitration ruling with China at a still-unspecified time during his six-year presidency.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has carried out extensive land reclamation work on many of the islands and reefs it claims, equipping some with air strips and military installations that have alarmed rival claimant countries and Western governments led by the United States.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said yesterday that China would take “necessary measures” to protect its sovereignty after the USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal on Wednesday evening without China’s permission.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the US, Manila’s treaty ally, did not notify the Philippines of its naval operation near Scarborough.
“We have no say over whatever the Americans do in the South China Sea. They do not inform us beforehand of their activities there,” Lorenzana said.
Asked if the passage of the US warship in Philippine-claimed waters was a concern, Lorenzana said: “No, for as long as they are on innocent passage. International law allows innocent passage even in territorial waters.”
The United States does not claim territory in the South China Sea but has declared it has a national interest in ensuring that the territorial disputes there are resolved peacefully in accordance with international law.
The US Navy regularly sails through the area to assert freedom of navigation.
Lt Cmdr Nicole Schwegman, a spokeswoman for the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, said on Saturday that such operations are “not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements.” Instead they aim to “demonstrate our commitment to uphold the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.”
Scarborough is known in Chinese as Huangyan Island and called Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc by the Philippines. It lies about 200 kms west of the main Philippine island of Luzon, and about 600 kms southeast of China.