This week, a Chinese survey ship entered Philippine waters without authorization for the second time this year, leading irritated Philippine officials to open fire – not at the ship, but at each other on Twitter.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Tuesday that the Jia Geng research vessel had not received permission to stay in Philippine waters, although his department had approved a “request for shelter” due to “bad weather.”
A report by Al Jazeera revealed the foreign affairs department’s maritime division had documented the Chinese vessel entering the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) as early as January 27, one day before the Chinese embassy made a request for shelter. The Philippine Daily Inquirer previously reported the ship had been spotted in the Philippine EEZ on January 25.
Locsin said Thursday that the Jia Geng had “never intruded” and added it had indeed been in the Philippine EEZ on January 27.
“Chinese vessel never intruded; enter our territory seeking refuge even as China asked permission; Coast Guard never attempted to board because it is illegal to try; Chinese vessel left right after storm passed. No intrusion. Period,” Locsin said.
Not everyone believed the story, however. The Jia Geng had also entered Philippine waters in September 2020, leading Manila to file a diplomatic protest with Beijing.
Antonio Trillanes, a former senator who has acted as a special intermediary with China, told Al Jazeera that the Philippine Coast Guard “should have immediately apprehended the ship” and said its failure to do so “shows the deferential treatment of our own Philippine Coast Guard towards China. This is yet another manifestation of Duterte’s policy of subservience to Beijing.”
The incident led to outrage among Filipinos angered that the otherwise popular President Rodrigo Duterte has allowed Beijing to sail vessels and construct island features in Philippine waters, in violation of the country’s sovereignty.
It also provided kindling for a Twitter dispute between Locsin and presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who had said a coast guard law passed by Beijing would not quash the impact of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) South China Sea Code of Conduct.
Roque also said there is a “probability” the Philippines would take China to court over the new law. In 2016, in a case brought by the Philippines, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that Chinese sovereignty claims within its “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea had no legal basis.
Locsin tweeted at Roque on Monday, February 1 to “just lay off foreign affairs,” following it up with an all-caps missive in which he called Roque incompetent in speaking for Manila’s foreign policy.
“I am not listening to Harry Roque. Love the guy but he’s not competent in this field. We do not go back to The Hague. We might lose what we won. Harry, lay off,” he said.
Locsin’s Caps Lock-fueled anger surged again the next day after Roque said the Philippine military was on standby to repatriate Filipinos in Myanmar after that country’s military coup.
“Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque does not express foreign policy. That was his personal opinion. And the last thing we will do is assemble our armed forces to evacuate our nationals,” he said.
Locsin has had an eventful week on Twitter between the Chinese vessel and the Myanmar coup, which the foreign secretary has refused to condemn while taking a “wait and see attitude.”
“Also cleared up: wait and see attitude on Myanmar is my call not Duterte’s who’d otherwise blow his top for a personal friend, [Aung San] Suu Kyi. You got a problem with that, see me. Meanwhile I will not join the West which destroyed Suu Kyi and left her defenseless before the Army,” Locsin tweeted on Thursday.
“They tore her to pieces and so where is she now? And where is Burmese democracy?” Locsin said before a Senate committee hearing on Thursday. “Ten steps forward – just for the liberals in the United States to feel good tearing down a woman, they have gone 20 steps back for Burmese democracy.”
“The last people I will listen to is a white face on this issue … I am really angry that they destroyed a great thing,” he said.
Locsin has taken a more combative stance toward Beijing in the past than others in Duterte’s cabinet. His defenses of Philippine sovereignty have often contrasted with statements by other officials, including Roque, who take more deferential public approaches toward Beijing.
Locsin has also gained a reputation for his colorful Twitter personality, known for profane invective and spontaneous arguments with followers. Last year, he was temporarily suspended from Twitter after saying members of a progressive political group were “communists” and suggesting that they be “shot.”