MANILA • Aides of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday criticised China for what they called territorial incursions by hundreds of its vessels, which his legal counsel warned could damage ties and lead to "unwanted hostilities".
In some of the strongest words yet from Mr Duterte's camp about Beijing's conduct in the South China Sea, his lawyer Salvador Panelo called the prolonged presence of boats an unwelcome stain on relations that risked "unwanted hostilities that both countries would rather not pursue".
Mr Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque echoed the view, saying at a news conference: "We will not give up even a single inch of our national territory or our exclusive economic zone (EEZ)."
China's embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Though Philippine diplomats and top generals have spoken out against China lately, the comments from the presidential palace are unusually strong, given Mr Duterte's reluctance to confront Beijing, which he has sought to befriend.
His refusal to press China to respect a landmark 2016 arbitral ruling that clarified the Philippines' sovereign rights in its EEZ has frustrated nationalists, who accuse Mr Duterte of gambling with territory in return for elusive Chinese investment.
Manila last month filed a diplomatic protest over a "swarming and threatening" presence of 220 Chinese vessels it believed to be manned by militias at Whitsun Reef, in a stance backed by its ally Washington.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, China and Vietnam also have competing claims in the South China Sea.
Mr Panelo also said Manila would not be blinded by Beijing's humanitarian gestures, referring to the millions of Covid-19 vaccines donated by China.