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EDITORIAL - ‘Innocent passage’

If President Duterte wants more public support for his approach to dealing with China, he should ask his Chinese friends to give him some help. Throwing money to support his war on drugs isn’t enough. As narrated by confessed drug traffickers, China remains the main source of shabu for which Filipino drug suspects have been killed by the thousands since last year, and questions are being raised about any quid pro quo for drug rehabilitation facilities given by private Chinese donors.

Such generosity is also forgotten each time there is a report of Chinese incursion into waters claimed by the Philippines, especially the areas where the country has been awarded sovereign rights by the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

It’s even worse when the Chinese enter waters on the Philippines’ eastern seaboard, facing the Pacific Ocean, where there are no overlapping maritime territorial claims. Philippine security officials have disclosed that Chinese ships had entered Benham Rise and lingered there. President Duterte said the Chinese visit was covered by an agreement, but Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Armed Forces of the Philippines was unaware of this.

The other day, a Chinese foreign ministry official invoked freedom of navigation and “right to innocent passage” in undertaking the marine research, while at the same time maintaining that Beijing was not challenging the Philippines’ rights to Benham. Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reportedly said Beijing “fully respects the Philippines’ rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise and there is no such thing as China challenging those rights.”

Lorenzana countered that the prolonged stay of the ships in the area no longer constituted “innocent passage.” Both the Senate and House of Representatives have set inquiries into the incident, amid warnings by some sectors that the President could be impeached over the issue.

This tension could have been avoided with proper coordination between the two governments. Ties between the two countries, which have a long history of friendship, trade and cultural exchanges, have warmed since President Duterte assumed power. If the Chinese respect the Philippines’ rights over Benham and want to conduct marine research in Philippine waters, all they have to do is ask.

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