South China Sea heats up as Philippines drops the F-bomb over Chinese boats
The Philippines has taken the gloves off in its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea, with its top diplomat dropping the F-bomb as he demanded the withdrawal of Chinese vessels near the Scarborough Shoal.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr dispensed with diplomatic niceties as he took to Twitter on Monday, calling China an “ugly oaf” and demanding it “get the f*** out” of Philippine maritime waters. His colourful language followed reports that Chinese coastguard ships had harassed their Philippine counterparts in the vicinity of the shoal, which is claimed by both countries.
The shoal lies 220km west of the Philippine island of Luzon and is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but is also within the nine-dash line that Beijing uses to stake its claims to more than 90 per cent of the South China Sea.
Locsin’s outburst is the latest escalation in a war of words that has taken a turn for the worse since March, when hundreds of Chinese vessels were spotted lingering near Whitsun Reef, another feature of the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
The Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said in a statement on Monday that “China has no law enforcement rights in these areas … the unauthorised and lingering presence of these vessels is a blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty.”
Locsin put it in simpler language: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see … get the f*** out. What are you doing to our friendship? You. Not us. We’re trying. You.”
He compared China to “an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be your friend”.
‘MASSIVE TWITTER TROLL’
Like his boss President Rodrigo Duterte, Locsin is famous for using crude language in public. In 2016, Buzzfeed called him a “massive Twitter troll”.
Asked about Locsin’s tweet, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said, “we won’t meddle in the free-speech rights of secretary Locsin”.
China has so far not responded to the foreign secretary. A high-ranking Philippine government official, who asked not to be identified, said it was “hard to say” whether Chinese officials took Locsin’s tweets seriously.
“They likely take note and are probably trying to figure out what he really means.”
However, defence analyst Chester Cabalza said “the king has the last word, China will only listen to what Duterte has to say.”
While Duterte has crudely insulted both the United States and the European Union, he has never publicly criticised Beijing.
Cabalza said Locsin’s tweet “was not done in the sophisticated fashion that is expected in foreign affairs” and predicted that “Twitter diplomacy would bring no chilling effect to Beijing”.
The defence analyst, a fellow at both Beijing’s National Defence University and the US State Department, said China would “not spend efforts [on a] word war this time with Manila but will [instead] flex its military muscle in the contested area”.
Locsin’s crude choice of words reflects Manila’s growing exasperation at what it sees as Chinese bullying.
The high-ranking government official who asked to remain anonymous said that while “different cabinet officials may have their own way of expressing their views” it was still the president who set “the overall direction of foreign policy”.
He said that despite Locsin’s outburst the government’s diplomatic strategy was unchanged: “Develop friendly relations with China while asserting Philippine sovereignty. It’s a combination of cooperation as much as possible and pushback whenever necessary.”
On Sunday, Secretary of National Defence Delfin Lorenzana said that “while we acknowledge that China’s military capability is more advanced than ours, this does not deter us from defending our national interest, and our dignity as a people, with all that we have”.
Locsin’s tweet was the latest in an increasingly harsh four-way verbal tussle that has involved government critics attacking Duterte for his closeness to China; Duterte defending his ties to China and attacking his critics; his cabinet defending the president while asserting Philippine sovereignty; and China occasionally butting in to assert its claims and criticise Duterte’s cabinet secretaries.
However, just as Duterte has refrained from insulting China, China has stopped short of criticising Duterte.
When Duterte took office in 2016 he announced his intention to move the Philippines away from its traditional ally, the US, and closer to China. Soon after coming to power he said he would set aside an international arbitral court ruling that had sided with Manila in its South China Sea dispute with Beijing. He reasoned that doing so would help unlock aid Beijing has promised the Philippines.
Duterte has also said he is unable to oppose China’s activities in what Manila refers to as the “West Philippine Sea” because doing so would anger Beijing and risk war. He has said on more than one occasion that China is already in possession of the West Philippine Sea.
In an online forum on April 28, former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio said Filipinos should question this.
“Shout out loud so that President Duterte will wake from his deep sleep under the kulambo [mosquito net] and admit to the nation the truth, that China is not in possession of the West Philippine Sea.”
It was a barbed reference to Duterte’s habit of vanishing from the public eye for days and the president’s claims that he is a late sleeper.
Carpio noted how Duterte announced in 2019 that he had made a “verbal” fishing agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would allow Chinese fishermen access to the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
On April 29, Duterte shot back by accusing Carpio and the former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario of having “lost” the maritime area during the previous administration. “If you’re so bright, why did we lose it?”
On May 1, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jnr said the Duterte government had never lost an island to China. The next day the presidential palace said that Duterte had never renounced the Philippines’ claims, with Roque saying the president’s foreign policy was “careful, calculated and calibrated”.