Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has barred his Cabinet from talking about the South China Sea in public, but said the gag order did not mean the country was wavering in its defense of its sovereign rights.
His decision follows weeks of strong rebukes of China by his ministers over the presence of hundreds of fishing vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), fueling tensions that have gone against Duterte’s policy of rapprochement and non-confrontation with Beijing.
“This is my order now to the Cabinet, and to all and sundry talking for the government, to refrain from discussing the West Philippine Sea with anybody,” Duterte said in a televised address, using the local name for its EEZ. “If we talk, we talk, but just among us.”
Duterte later said that his order should not be construed as weakness and yesterday said that maritime patrols must continue.
“Our agencies have been directed to do what they must and should to protect and defend our nation’s interest,” Duterte said in a statement.
“We will not waver in our position,” Duterte added.
Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and has built military installations equipped with missiles on reefs in disputed areas, including within the Philippine EEZ, alongside a constant presence of coast guard and fishing vessels.
The gag order could lessen tensions at the rhetorical level, said Aaron Jed Rabena of the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, a Manila-based think tank.
“It could be that President Duterte has realized that it’s high time for his administration to speak with one voice given the mixed signals ... which show a government that is incoherent,” Rabena said.
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