South China Sea: Duterte slams Pacquiao in fiery policy debate on waters ‘Study first!’

South China Sea: President Duterte ‘slams’ Manny Pacquiao

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The senator and eight-division champion said he found the leader’s stand on the South China Sea was “lacking”. In a late night interview with SMNI news channel on Tuesday, Duterte said Pacquiao, a senator and close ally, should “study first” before weighing in. Pacquiao stood his ground and hit back on Wednesday, when he said the country should pursue dialogue over disputes, but “stand strong in protecting our sovereign rights”.

“I am a Filipino voicing out what needs to be said in defence of what has been adjudicated as rightfully ours,” Pacquiao said, referring to a 2016 international arbitral ruling won by the Philippines in a case against China.

Though Duterte is hugely popular at home, he has been widely criticised for refusing to confront China over the conduct of its military, coastguard and fishing fleet, which he has repeatedly said would be pointless.

The Philippine defence and diplomatic establishment has spoken out strongly of late over the constant presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which they say are manned by militias.

China has denied that.

Duterte has said the Philippines owes China a “huge debt” of gratitude for its support in other areas, remarks that did not sit well with Pacquiao.

Pacquiao, 42, had last month said he found Duterte’s stance to be “lacking” and “disheartening”.

The comments were a surprise, as Pacquiao has long been among Duterte’s strongest backers, including over his bloody war on drugs and bid to re-introduce the death penalty.

“I respect the president’s opinion but humbly disagree with his assessment of my understanding of foreign policy,” said Pacquiao, who is rumoured to be considering running for the presidency next year.

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It comes as the head of the Philippine armed forces visited a coral-fringed island his country occupies in the South China Sea this week, a move that could stoke already heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing in disputed waters claimed by both countries.

During Monday’s visit, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Cirilito Sobejana commended the soldiers for the role they played in protecting the island’s residents and “guarding the country’s territories” in the strategic waterway.

The visit comes after recent diplomatic protests made by the Philippines over what it says is the illegal presence of hundreds of “Chinese maritime militia” vessels inside its exclusive economic zone and near its occupied islands.

Chinese diplomats have said the boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.

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Sobejana’s trip to Thitu, known to Filipinos as Pagasa, happened on Monday, but information was only made public by the AFP on Wednesday.

Thitu is the biggest of the nine reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago, and is home to a small number of military personnel and civilians.

“(The troops) are in very high spirit, their level of moral is high especially after our visit,” Sobejana told reporters on Tuesday evening, adding he also wanted to inspect the island to oversee plans to convert it into a logistics hub to make it easier for naval assets conducting patrols to refuel.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3 trillion every year.

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