By Raïssa Robles
The reason – summer has brought several hundred Chinese fishing boats around Pag-Asa island, just as the Philippine military is about to do a major facelift of its facilities there, including the air strip and airport.
The summer winds blowing through Malacañang Palace seem to have also inspired officials to sing a different tune about the South China Sea.
This afternoon, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo held for the first time a “virtual presser” for reporters from the foreign media. I would not have known about it had not not my editors assigned me to it.
Do you know that nearly three years after assuming the presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to deliver a major policy speech before the foreign media, including the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines? Neither has his foreign secretaries ever met FOCAP.
But, that’s their prerogative.
I’m just glad that Malacanang has started opening up to the foreign media.
Below is what I wrote after Panelo’s virtual presser:
US-Philippine Balikatan military exercises in South China Sea ‘not a message to Beijing’, insists Manila
♦ Naval drills that simulate repelling a foreign power from a Philippine island are not a response to China’s deployment of a large fleet to waters near Thitu – or Pagasa – island, claims President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman
♦ Salvador Panelo also says his country has a “neutral stance” on America’s assertion of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea
Published: 8:49pm, 15 Apr, 2019
A military exercise in which US and Philippine forces simulate repelling a foreign power that has seized control of a Manila-controlled island in the South China Sea is not meant to send a message to China, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo insisted on Monday.
Responding to a question by the South China Morning Post, Panelo was adamant that the Balikatan 2019 naval drills, which took place from April 1 to 12, were “regular military exercises jointly agreed upon by the two countries even prior to the so-called present conflict between China and the Philippines”.
So, there’s nothing new, there’s nothing new in that,” he said during the Malacanang Palace’s first virtual press conference with foreign media.
While both the US and the Philippines have claimed the exercise is not aimed at China, some of the activities it has involved have prompted scepticism of those claims.
Since January, Manila and Beijing have been at loggerheads over China’s deployment of a large fleet of vessels to the Philippines-held Thitu island in the South China Sea. Beijing has sent a fleet of about 275 boats to the vicinity of the island, in what analysts have claimed is an effort to dissuade Manila from constructing military facilities there. Beijing is concerned the United States would be able to use the facilities, according to diplomatic observers. The presence of the Chinese vessels recently prompted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, using the Philippine name for the island, to warn Beijing to “lay off Pagasa because I have soldiers there”.
“If you touch it, that’s a different story. I will tell the soldiers ‘prepare for suicide mission’,” Duterte said.
But despite the ongoing tension, Panelo insisted that the Balikatan exercises were a separate issue, adding that relations with China were “still friendly, cordial, while we are asserting our rights over [the island], we maintain our friendly relations”.
Panelo also said the Philippines had a “neutral stance” on America’s assertion of freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea.
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