The Philippines is walking back caustic remarks made by its top diplomat, who had told China in an expletive-laced Twitter post to get out of the South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque said in a news briefing yesterday that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin has been told to avoid using profanities in his public remarks, especially when it concerns diplomacy.
"The President's message was, in diplomacy, there is no room for profanities. The President told members of his Cabinet only he is allowed to swear," said Mr Roque.
Mr Locsin on Monday demanded that Beijing withdraw its boats and ships from disputed waters in the South China Sea.
"China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O… GET THE F*** OUT," he posted on his personal Twitter account.
"What are you doing to our friendship? You. Not us. We're trying. You. You're like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; not to father a Chinese province."
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) of trade passes each year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that these claims were inconsistent with international law.
Mr Roque said Mr Locsin had apologised. "He told me that he had personally apologised to the Chinese ambassador, and that whatever he said was because of things that set him off."
The Philippine Foreign Ministry did not issue an official statement. But Mr Locsin yesterday tweeted that he had apologised to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi "for hurting his feelings, but his alone".
"I won't plead the last provocation as an excuse for losing it; but if Wang Yi is following Twitter then I'm sorry for hurting his feelings but his alone… His opinion alone matters," he said.
Mr Locsin fired off his profanity-laced tweet just hours after the Foreign Ministry accused China's coast guard of "shadowing, blocking, dangerous manoeuvres, and radio challenges" on Philippine ships that patrolled and trained last month around a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.
It also protested against the "incessant, illegal, prolonged and increasing presence" of China's fishing vessels and maritime militia in its economic zones.
Manila had been firing off a barrage of diplomatic protests since reports surfaced last month that over 200 militia boats were "swarming" the boomerang-shaped Whitsun Reef around 320km west of the Philippine coastline.
Most of these boats had left Whitsun, but Philippine defence officials said they merely dispersed to other disputed areas.
Mr Duterte on Monday night sought to diffuse the fallout from Mr Locsin's remarks, saying China "remains a benefactor".
"Just because we have a conflict with China doesn't mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful," he said.
Days earlier, Mr Duterte had called China "a good friend", saying in his weekly televised address: "We owed it a big debt of gratitude, among others for the vaccines (it has donated to us)."
Yesterday, he also sought to dial back speeches he made concerning the South China Sea when he was campaigning for presidency.
"I never, never in my campaign... promised... I would retake the West Philippine Sea," he said, referring to parts of the South China Sea the Philippines regards as inside its exclusive economic zone.
"I did not promise that I would pressure China. I never mentioned (anything) about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter," he said.
But in an often-quoted remark in a campaign speech in 2016, Mr Duterte had vowed to ride a jet ski to one of the disputed islands to plant the Philippine flag there.