THE Philippines has sent a number of “low-key” notes verbale to China to seek clarification on several issues, including the reported arms buildup on artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said on Tuesday.
In various television interviews, Yasay said “three to four” notes verbale were sent to China, even as Manila seeks to repair ties with Beijing.
“We make sure that our interests are properly protected so when a situation arises for us to issue a note verbale, we just do it as a matter of course without any fanfare,” he said.
A note verbale is an unsigned diplomatic document issued by a complaining country to another if there is a disagreement.
Yasay said, however, that filing such notes was not meant as a protest, but to verify reports and discuss them with China.
“We are very vigilant about any actions or any acts that will be provocative or only serve to increase the tensions there,” he said. “We will always make sure that we will always take the appropriate action in protecting these rights.”
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies last month published satellite photographs of what appeared to be fortifications and weapons systems on seven man-made islets in South China Sea.
In a separate interview with reporters, the country’s top diplomat stressed that renewing ties with China did not mean compromising the Philippines’ sovereignty rights over its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“We’re verifying the whole thing and I will assure you that we are taking steps in making sure that the interest of the Philippines in protecting our sovereignty rights are upheld and so on,” Yasay said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza appeared to contradict Yasay, saying China’s militarization of the South China Sea was “very troubling” and neither peaceful nor friendly.
“Notwithstanding the warming of relations between our countries, the Philippine government would be remiss in its duty to protect its national interest if it does not protest, question and seek clarification from China on the presence of weapons in the Spratlys,” Lorenzana said in a statement.
“The actions of China in militarizing those disputed features are very troubling. They do not square with the Chinese government’s rhetoric that its purpose is peaceful and friendly.”
In Malacañang, presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Philippines would continue to pursue diplomatic approaches.
“Aggressive and provocative diplomacy will bring us nowhere so we dealt with the issue formally,” Abella told reporters.
“The Philippines will continue to assert its sovereignty over the disputed territory in the South China Sea while remaining consistent with the efforts of President Duterte to revitalize longstanding ties with China. As always, we shall staunchly support all efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region,” he added.
In July last year, the Philippines scored a sweeping victory in an international arbitration court that invalidated China’s historical claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
But the Asian giant ignored the ruling and continued its apparent militarization in the strategic sea lane, through which pass over 65 percent of global trade amounting to $5.3 trillion each year.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, lamented that Yasay did not consider a diplomatic protest to strengthen the country’s legal position.
“Fact that Yasay has not described [the note verbale as a diplomatic protest], in addition to his previous statements, indicates that the Philippines may not have protested at all,” he told The Manila Times.
Ambassador Lauro Baja, former Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations, questioned Yasay’s motive in sending notes verbale.
“When one country sends a note verbale, normally it should be a diplomatic protest. It’s quite strange, if not naive that you send a note verbale to verify something which you do not have exact fact from the other side, and expect that you get a fair and accurate reply,” he said.
Baja added that “in the normal flow of things, they don’t reply to this kind of note especially if the note contains facts that cannot be controverted.”
WITH AFP AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE