Top Philippine Minister Tells China to "Get Out" of Spratly Islands

fishing vessels
Chinese maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, March 2021 (Image courtesy Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published May 3, 2021 3:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

Manila and Beijing are engaged in an increasingly heated diplomatic dispute over the status of Chinese forces in the Spratly Islands, which both sides claim. 

The Spratlys lie within the Philippine EEZ and are hundreds of miles away from the Chinese mainland, but China asserts that these land features - and most of the rest of the South China Sea - fall within its "inherent territory." Through dredging and land reclamation, Chinese forces have turned multiple reefs in the Spratly chain into strategic air and naval bases, with piers suitable for surface combatants and runways capable of handling heavy bombers. 

In March, the Philippine armed forces detected a buildup of more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Reef, a submerged feature at Union Banks in the Spratly Islands. China asserted that the flotilla was anchored to wait out foul weather, though conditions were relatively benign during the month. Manila demanded that the large, well-maintained trawlers should depart its waters immediately. Almost all have repositioned away from Whitsun, though many relocated to nearby Chinese bases within easy reach of Union Banks. 

"We view with grave concern the presence of 220 Chinese militia boats in the Julian Felipe Reef (Union Reef) in the West Philippine Sea. This is a clear provocative action of militarizing the area," said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana in late March. 

In late April, China's foreign ministry urged Philippine naval and coast guard assets to "respect China's sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes" in the Philippine EEZ. The Philippine Department of National Defense followed up by suggesting that it is "[Chinese forces] who are encroaching and should desist and leave." 

On Monday, Philippine foreign minister Teodoro Locsin intensified the pushback, going beyond the usual bounds of diplomatic decorum. "China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O…get the _____ out," he wrote in a Twitter post. "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."

Earlier in the day, Locsin's ministry accused the China Coast Guard of engaging in dangerous maneuvers in the vicinity of Philippine assets. The ministry asserted that Chinese white-hull vessels have been "shadowing, blocking, [making] dangerous maneuvers, and radio challenges" of Philippine vessels during an exercise near Bajo de Masinloc on April 24 and 25. 

Manila rejects China's claims to the Spratly Islands and other parts of the Philippine EEZ, and it asserts that the "lingering presence" of China Coast Guard vessels near Philippine-occupied territories is a "blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty." 

Separately, Chinese state-run outlet Global Times announced Monday that the PLA Navy would be deploying the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts to the South China Sea. China's two carriers have been a regular presence in the area this year; Global Times cited a PLA officer who advised other nations to view the deployment "objectively and rationally."