The gag order comes after top ministers criticized Beijing for the presence of Chinese ships on the disputed waterway.

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, has banned his cabinet from publicly discussing the South China Sea dispute after key ministers rebuked Beijing over the presence of Chinese ships on the disputed waterway.

However, Duterte stressed Tuesday that the gag order did not mean the Philippines hesitated in its defense of its sovereign rights.

Tensions between Manila and Beijing over the South China Sea (which China claims almost completely) rose in March after hundreds of Chinese vessels were detected in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) or in the South China Sea. Western Philippines.

Although Duterte has been reluctant to confront China over this issue, its defense and foreign secretaries have repeatedly criticized Beijing, including a tweet full of explanations, for its refusal to withdraw ships from the disputed waters.

In a televised speech Monday afternoon, Duterte said, “This is my order to the cabinet and all those who speak for the government to refrain from discussing the West Philippine Sea with anyone.”

“If we talk, we only talk to each other,” he said.

But the Philippine leader later clarified that his order should not be interpreted as a weakness and on Tuesday said maritime patrols should continue.

“Our agencies have been directed to do what they are supposed to do and must protect and defend the interest of our nation,” Duterte said in a statement. “We will not hesitate in our position.”

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and has built military facilities equipped with reef missiles in disputed areas, including the Philippine EEZ area, along with a constant presence of coastguards and fishing vessels.

While China’s conduct has been a constant problem for Duterte, the Philippine president has refrained from criticizing Beijing and instead praised his leadership, hoping to get big investments.

But his approach has frustrated nationalists.

The Chinese ships, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are seen in the Philippine EEZ on March 27, 2021 [File: Philippine Coast Guard/National Task Force-West Philippine Sea/Handout via Reuters]

In early May, Duterte Secretary of State Teodoro Locsin Jr. took to Twitter to ask China to leave the waterway.

“China, my friend, with what education can I say that? Let me see … OR … LEAVE THE F ***, “Locsin wrote.

The foreign secretary’s online oath sparked a reprimand from Beijing and he later apologized to his Chinese counterpart.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters on Tuesday that Locsin still had permission to address the issue in public, as it was part of his portfolio.

“The president’s instructions were clear. Now only the Secretary of Foreign Affairs and I can talk about the issue, “Roque said during a press conference.

Analysts say the order of gags could lower tensions at the rhetorical level.

“President Duterte may have realized it’s time for his administration to speak with one voice given the mixed signals,” said Aaron Jed Rabena of the Manila-based think tank Asia-Pacific Pathways. to Progress.

He told Reuters news agency that the various messages showed “incoherent government”.


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