MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is committed to peacefully resolving a diplomatic row with China over the disputed South China Sea, his spokesman said on Tuesday, in a measured response after days of strong rebukes by his ministers and generals.
The continued presence inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone of hundreds of Chinese vessels that it believes are manned by militias has frustrated Manila and drawn concern from ally the United States, among others.
“We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” said a statement from Duterte read by his spokesman Harry Roque.
China has maintained that Whitsun Reef, known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines, was a traditional fishing ground where its vessels were seeking shelter from adverse weather.
China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The toning down of the Philippine response comes a day after its foreign ministry said it would protest daily if China refused to withdraw boats that “blatantly infringe” on Philippine sovereign rights. Duterte’s legal counsel warned of “unwanted hostilities”.
Defying public opinion, Duterte has sought to build an alliance with China and has been reluctant to confront its leadership having been promised billions of dollars of loans and investments, much of which have yet to materialise.
He has repeatedly said the Philippines was powerless to stop China occupying features and challenging its activities could risk a war his country would lose.
In Duterte’s statement, he said differences in the South China Sea would not be an obstacle to friendly relations and cooperation in pandemic response, including vaccines and economic recovery.
The Philippines has one of Asia’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks but has faced difficulties securing vaccine supplies.
It has purchased 25 million doses of vaccines from China’s Sinovac and the two million shots it has so far form the majority of its vaccine inventory.
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty)