Philippines warns China of ‘severest response’ over drills

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine foreign secretary warned China on Friday of “the severest response” if ongoing Chinese military exercises in the disputed South China Sea spill over to Philippine territory.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said China’s People’s Liberation Army has been staging exercises off the Paracel Islands since July 1 and Chinese maritime officials have prohibited all vessels from navigating within the area of the maneuvers.

After checking the coordinates of the no-entry zone, where the Chinese military maneuvers are being staged, Locsin said the waters off the Paracels, which are also claimed by Vietnam, “do not impinge on Philippine territory” although he raised some concern.

“Should the exercises spill over to Philippine territory, then China is forewarned that it will be met with the severest response, diplomatic and whatever else is appropriate,” Locsin said in a statement without elaborating.

The Philippine warning to China over their territorial conflicts is the strongest so far this year and comes despite an improvement in relations since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.

Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam and protested two new territorial districts announced by China in large swaths of the sea, adding that China’s assertive actions were taking place while the region was preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic.

Locsin said those territorial districts in the disputed waters were “null and void” for being devoid of basis in international law.

“This is the problem with playing fast and loose with historical narratives and historical names,” Locsin said. “They open themselves to error; unless the real purpose is to excuse unchallenged mistakes that may over time harden into rights.”

China, like any other power, can invoke freedom of navigation while carrying out military exercises, Locsin said, but added that such passages should be done in a straight and uninterrupted voyage.

“We continue to look to China, as our nearest and biggest trading partner,” Locsin said, adding that its participation is essential to the success of any post-coronavirus economic recovery.

But he called on “the erring parties to refrain from escalating tension and abide by the responsibilities under international law” and exercise self-restraint in taking actions that could escalate disputes, especially during the pandemic.

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