Defense department officials on Thursday said Beijing is confusing its own people by resorting to “incessant twisting of the truth” in a maritime dispute with Manila over the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
“Talagang confused na ang Chinese government because of their incessant twisting of the truth and in their efforts misleading the good Chinese people. Sila na nga iyong nag-umpisa nitong gulo, tayo pa ngayon ang troublemaker [They’re the ones who started this trouble yet they now call us as the troublemaker],” Peter Paul Ruben Galvez, acting chief of staff of and spokesman for the Department of National Defense (DND), said.
Galvez and other DND and military officials were reacting to statements made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry criticizing Manila for repairing the BRP Sierra Madre, a crumbling ship that serves as its outpost in the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, branding the Philippines as a “hypocritical troublemaker and rule breaker” in the region.
The Philippine military deliberately grounded the 100-meter World War II-vintage Sierra Madre atop the shoal in 1999 in an effort to check the advance of China, which four years earlier occupied Panganiban (Mischief Reef) some 40 kilometers away.
The Armed Forces regularly rotates a squad of Marines aboard the ship.
Philippine Navy spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo on Wednesday said the rust-ridden vessel was being repaired to ensure that it remains livable for a tiny unit of Marines guarding the reefs.
The move drew a vehement protest from China, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accusing Manila of attempting to “permanently steal” the outcrops, while insisting that the reefs and other islets in the Kalayaan (Spratlys) were Chinese territory.
“China strongly protests and firmly opposes such an act,” Hua said in a statement also on Wednesday.
Philippine defense officials countered that the repairs on the Sierra Madre did not violate the country’s diplomatic and legal track in resolving the dispute.
“I dont think it’s a violation of anything because you have to remember that the Sierra Madre is a vessel, which any vessel at sea can conduct repairs on their own,” Director Arsenio Andolong of the DND Public Affairs Service told reporters
“Considering that it’s a vessel commissioned by the Navy, it is well within its right to conduct simple repairs. Siyempre parang bahay mo iyan e, inaayos mo lang naman [It’s just like doing repairs on your own house],” he said.
“They’re the troublemaker, not us, because they’re the ones who are refusing to abide by the Declaration of Conduct of the Asean to which they are signatory, and it’s quite clear that they are antagonizing several nations with their 9-dash line claim so the question should be who is the troublemaker here,” according to Galvez.
He said China is “confused” for saying the Philippines is the region’s troublemaker, noting that Chinese officials are making “bullying” statements to divert their people’s attention from domestic issues.
The exchange of comments comes as Beijing pursues a rapid program of artificial island construction in the West Philippine Sea, facilities which it has said will serve military as well as civilian purposes.
The Philippines has asked a United Nations-backed tribunal to declare China’s claim over most of the resource-rich South China Sea illegal.
Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam also have overlapping claims in the area, which straddles major shipping lanes.
The arbitration body based in The Hague is expected to decide within months whether it has jurisdiction over the case.