MANILA, Philippines-The government is prepared for any backlash from its move to question in the United Nations China's territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, but Manila's ties with Beijing remains the same, Malacañang said on Wednesday.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the Philippines was upholding its interest when it submitted its memorandum to the UN arbitral tribunal on Sunday questioning China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters within the Philippines' 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) called West Philippine Sea.
Coloma said, however, that the Philippines' relations with China should not be based on the dispute over territories in the West Philippine Sea.
He said, "When our President visited the People's Republic of China in 2011, he said this: 'The totality of Philippine-People's Republic of China relations is not defined by the West Philippine Sea."
Coloma explained: "In our country's view, our relations with the People's Republic of China have a history that is based on friendship and cooperation. And there are many areas where both countries can promote cooperation and friendship."
"That is why we can't say that the issue of the West Philippine Sea should be the basis for our relations with the People's Republic of China," he added.
Based on principles
"Our foreign policy is based on principles, and we're not swayed by [scenarios]," Coloma said when asked about possible backlash from the filing of the memorandum despite China's warning that it would damage relations between the two countries.
But should there be an economic backlash, Coloma said the government would protect the national interest, including the economy.
"It's the duty of the government to promote the welfare of its citizens and to ensure the orderly and stable growth of our national economy," he said.
"It's a continuing duty of the government," he added.
Chinese Charge d'Affaires Sun Xiangyang rebuked the Philippines on Tuesday, saying its move "seriously damaged" relations with China.
Sun said China was baffled by the Philippine move to "unilaterally shut the door to negotiations and consultations."
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Wednesday declined to rebut Sun's statements.
"The President has already spoken on that. We have nothing more to add," DFA spokesman Charles Jose told reporters.
Jose was referring to President Aquino's statement on Monday that the Philippines was "not challenging" or "provoking" China by proceeding with its legal action in the UN arbitral tribunal.
Aquino spoke at the Philippine National Police Academy graduation rites at Camp Gen. Mariano Castañeda in Silang town, Cavite province, a day after the Philippines submitted the memorandum to the UN tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The Philippines asked the tribunal to stop Chinese incursions into Philippine territory, clarify maritime boundaries and nullify China's claim to 90 per cent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
It asserted that the Chinese claim is illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), and interferes with the Philippines' sovereign rights to its continental shelf and the part of the South China Sea within its EEZ.
'Our own opinion'
Commenting on Sun's statement that the Philippines should have sought China's consent since international arbitration required the agreement of two parties, Coloma said that was "their own opinion."
"We have our own opinion and means to uphold the national interest of the Philippines," he said.
China shows its claims to the South China Sea on official maps with nine dashes that encompass nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters close to the shores of its neighbours.
At the centre of the dispute between the Philippines and China are islands in the Spratlys, a chain of up to 190 islands, reefs, coral outcrops and banks believed to be sitting atop large deposits of oil and natural gas.
The Philippines occupies five islands in the Spratlys known as Kalayaan (Freedom) Group and a shoal called Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal), where the government grounded a decommissioned naval vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, in 1999 to mark the boundary of the country's territory. The outpost is manned by a small contingent of Marines.
The Philippines also owns Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), farther to the north of the West Philippine Sea off the coast of Zambales province, but China insists the shoal is part of its territory even though it is within the Philippines' EEZ and more than 1,100 km from the nearest Chinese landmass.
China seized Panatag Shoal in 2012 after a two-month standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels, prompting Manila to bring the dispute to the United Nations for arbitration.
Angered by the Philippine move, China has been asserting its claims in the South China Sea more aggressively, blocking a Philippine resupply ship and turning it away from the BRP Sierra Madre on March 9.
The Philippine government resupplied the outpost by air-dropping provisions to the Marines manning the rusting vessel.
On Saturday, a day before the Philippines was to submit its memorandum to the UN arbitral tribunal, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels tried to prevent another Philippine resupply vessel from reaching the BRP Sierra Madre.
But after a two-hour standoff, the small Philippine vessel, which was also carrying fresh troops to replace the detail in the outpost and Filipino and foreign journalists, outmaneuvered the two big Chinese ships and completed its mission.
PH claim amended
After the March 9 incident, the Philippines amended its memorandum to the UN arbitral tribunal to include Ayungin Shoal and end once and for all China's interference in Philippine activities within its own territory.
On Wednesday, dozens of left-wing activist staged a rally at China's embassy in Manila to protest the Chinese Coast Guard's action at Ayungin Shoal on Saturday.
About 60 members of the Akbayan group carried a mock tape measure during the protest, and yelled, "China do you know how to measure?"
Protest leader Barry Gutierrez said China should measure the limits of its territory correctly and not bully its way into other countries' territories.
The United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, has said the right of any state to use dispute resolution methods under the Unclos should be respected.
The US state department also accused China's Coast Guard of harassing Philippine vessels, and called its attempt on Saturday to block a Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal "a provocative and destabilizing action."