Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, has officially placed a gag order on his cabinet over discussions pertaining to the recent disputes in the South China Sea. The order was implemented after key cabinet members publicly condemned and criticized Beijing for the Chinese presence in their waters, most notably Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, whose vulgar comments directed at China sparked controversy on Twitter in early May. Tensions between the Philippines and China were intensified recently when in late March, hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected inside the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and were refused to retreat the area, antagonizing members of Duterte’s government. Although he has barred his cabinet from publicly discussing the matter, the President has remained adamant that the Philippines will maintain its position on defending its maritime assets from foreign outsiders.
The presence of Chinese-controlled militia vessels at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands was discovered by patrols in early March. Officials from the Philippines began to vigorously condemn the ships occupying within their EEZ, insisting that President Duterte take more aggressive actions towards Beijing to protect their waters. Evidently, this outcry from cabinet members publicly on social media pressured him to issue the gag order to prevent further exchanges that could potentially worsen relationships. In a televised address to the nation, the President asserted “This is my order now to the cabinet, and to all and sundry talking for the government, to refrain from discussing the West Philippine Sea with anybody.” According to Al Jazeera, Duterte insisted that the order would not weaken the governments’ prior defensive stance and declared “Our agencies have been directed to do what they must and should to protect and defend our nation’s interest,” adding “We will not waver in our position.”
The South China Sea has remained a point of contention for decades for various countries in the region due to the desire for territorial expansion, natural resources, and massive fishing stocks. Today, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia each hold maritime claims to territory within the boundaries established by the 1973 U.N. Law of the Seas, which grants an EEZ of 200 nautical miles from each shore. The Chinese government frequently ignores the EEZ and bases its claims off of the discredited nine-dash line, which encompasses roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea. Chinese incursion in other state’s sovereign areas emulates their desire to extend their power, which is also portrayed by their construction of military installations on reefs in the Spratly Islands. While they claim historical rights to the area, their negligence has caused disputes with neighboring states who rightfully want to defend their territory granted to them under international law.
Duterte’s gag order follows years of confrontation as well as negotiation deals between the Philippines and China that have since been largely overlooked by the Chinese government. In 2013, the Philippine government filed a case against them known as the Republic of Philippines v. People’s Republic of China, in which the court determined there was no valid basis for the nine-dash line and that the behavior of Chinese vessels in the Philippines maritime area was illicit under international law. The election of Rodrigo Duterte changed the scope of the relationship between the two countries by welcoming Chinese investment within the Belt and Road Initiative and denouncing support for the United States. However, the increasing presence of Chinese vessels in the waterway has evidently shifted his judgment with the realization that Beijing’s assertiveness does not coincide with the Philippines’ freedom and security.
Disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved through peaceful discourse between leaders to avoid a potentially violent confrontation. China’s intrusion with militia manned vessels in the Philippines EEZ continues to break maritime conduct under the U.N. Law of the Seas and is a direct violation of international law. President Duterte silencing his ministry from publicly discussing this brings into question whether he will be more accommodating to his ministry’s demands for strident actions against Beijing or rather comply with China to welcome greater investment and funds. Either way, it is critical that both sides come to a consensus and agreement about what is permitted in the contested areas of the South China Sea.
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