Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday condemned the recent flare-up in the controversial South China Sea after Chinese Coast Guard ships fired water cannons at Philippine boats.
Duterte made the remarks at an Asian regional summit hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who promised his country would “never seek hegemony, let alone bully the little ones.”
China claims almost the entire waterway through which trillions of dollars flow annually in trade, with competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Beijing has ignored a 2016 ruling by the Hague Permanent Court of Arbitration that its historical claim is baseless.
Tensions over the resource-rich sea rose last week when Chinese coast guard ships fired water cannons at Filipino boats supplying Filipino marines to Second Thomas Shoal in the embattled Spratly Islands.
Manila was outraged by the incident, but Beijing said the Filipino boats entered its waters without permission.
“We detest the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view other similar developments with grave concern,” Duterte said at the meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, using the Filipino name for the shoal.
“That doesn’t speak well for the relations between our nations and our partnership.”
Duterte’s remarks were unusually strong for a leader who, since taking power in 2016, has had warmer ties with Beijing in hopes of staging promised investments and trade.
It is not clear whether Xi was attending the meeting when Duterte spoke.
For his part, Xi told the gathering, “We must work together to maintain the stability of the South China Sea and build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”
Renewed tensions over the seas have raised international concern.
The United States warned China on Friday that an armed attack on Filipino public ships would result in a US response under its treaty obligations to the Southeast Asian nation.
The European Union also called on “all parties to respect the freedom to navigate and fly over the South China Sea”.
Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the supply boats would resume their mission for the second Thomas Shoal after China’s ambassador to the Philippines assured them that they would not be obstructed.
China controls several reefs in the South China Sea, including Scarborough Shoal – which Beijing captured from Manila in 2012 – just 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of the Philippine main island of Luzon.
It has maintained its stance by turning small shoals and reefs into military bases with airstrips and docks.
After China occupied the Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines detained a derelict naval ship on the nearby Second Thomas Shoal to assert Manila’s territorial claim. Members of the Philippine Marines are stationed there.
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