Philippines' Duterte says China still a benefactor; top diplomat apologises for rude tweet

"China remains our benefactor," Mr Rodrigo Duterte said in a taped televised briefing on May 3, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - The Philippines is walking back caustic remarks made by its top diplomat, who told China in an expletives-laced Twitter post to get out of the South China Sea.

President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, Mr Harry Roque, on Tuesday (May 4) said in a news briefing that Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin was 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 that only he is allowed to swear," said Mr Roque.

Mr Locsin on Monday demanded that China 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 tweeted on his personal 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," he added.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about US$3 trillion (S$4 trillion) of ship-borne 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 for what he said. "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," he said.

The Philippines' Foreign Ministry did not issue an official statement. But Mr Locsin, again taking to Twitter on Tuesday, said 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 the "incessant, illegal, prolonged and increasing presence" of China's fishing vessels and maritime militia in its economic zones.

The Philippines 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 country's coastline.

Most of these boats had left Whitsun, but Philippine defence officials said they merely dispersed around other disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

Mr Duterte late on Monday evening sought to diffuse the fallout from Mr Locsin's remarks.

He said 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". "We owed it a big debt of gratitude, among others for the vaccines (it has donated to us)," he said in his weekly televised address.

On Tuesday, 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 as president promised the people that 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 he made in a campaign speech in 2016, he had vowed to ride a jet ski to one of the disputed islands in the South China Sea to plant the Philippine flag there.

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