Philippines exercising diplomatic options over South China Sea issue: DFA

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said Monday the Philippines will exercise its rights over any actions by China on Philippine-claimed islands in the South China Sea.

Yasay said he had released "about three or four" notes verbales expressing concern over China's occupation of Scarborough Shoal since he was appointed to the foreign affairs post last May.

"I have issued a lot of note verbales in so as far as the Scarborough Shoal is concerned, but let's just do it very quietly," Yasay told CNN Philippines' The Source.

A note verbale, or verbal note, is an unsigned diplomatic document issued by a country written in the third person. It is considered less formal than a note or a formal protest, but is more formal than an aide-memoire, or an informal diplomatic message.

Such notes normally convey diplomatic protests, or formal disagreements or complaints with another sovereign nation.

"We are very vigilant about any actions or any acts that will be provocative or only serve to increase the tensions there," said Yasay.

"We will always make sure that we will always take the appropriate action in protecting these rights," he added.

Yasay emphasized that the government does not wish to take action "with fanfare" or via announcements to the press.

"It's always nice that if you have a problem with any particular country, you would like first to discuss it with them," said Yasay.

Since an international arbitral court in the Hague made its landmark ruling last July in favor of the Philippines' claims in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte's government has preferred pursuing a diplomatic approach towards China.

The more tolerant approach has worked, with Duterte bringing home US$24 billion worth of deals from a state visit to China in October despite the two countries' long-running, conflicting claims on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

Yasay also cited the resumption of Filipino fishermen's activities in Scarborough Shoal as a result of a diplomatic approach between China and the Philippines. The shoal, known as Panatag, lies 123 miles (198 kms) off Subic Bay in Zambales, and well within the Philippines' 200-mile exclusive economic zone as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Related: China allows Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal

One of the notes verbales issued followed an American think-tank report last month that China had brought military equipment to the Spratly Islands. China subsequently confirmed this presence, but said such operations were legitimate.

Related: China defends military weapons on Spratly Islands

Yasay assured that they had "taken action" after the report, but he did not disclose the full details.

When asked if China had replied to any of the notes, Yasay responded that talks with China continued.

"There are things that I wouldn't even want to discuss here. But I would just like to assure the Filipino people that when we take action and engage with China in this dispute, we do not want to take such aggressive, provocative actions," Yasay reiterated.

"We have to assert ourselves when we talk" and guard from "repeating the same things that can only serve to heighten tension," he added.

However, Yasay said that there was a problem in Mischief Reef, where China had built a military base.

"Our problem really is Mischief Reef, because these facilities have been completed long before President Duterte assumed [his position], and there's nothing we can do about that," said Yasay.

Chinese structures on Mischief Reef, known as Panganiban Reef were discovered in 1995. Since then, China has been ramping up its development of installations on the reef, which lies 192 nautical miles (355 kms) off Palawan.

"But nevertheless, when there were reports about the build-up of weapons systems in our area during our watch, we made sure that the interests of the Filipinos are properly addressed and protected," he added.

Content of notes verbales

Despite the nature of the note verbale as formal complaint, there might not be "anything extraordinary" about such an issuance, said political analyst Richard Heydarian.

Heydarian maintains that he believes in the foreign policy shift away from the West, but he worries that some government statements may come off as "apologia" for China's activities in South China Sea.

"Nonetheless I understand... they want to be careful what they say, but that doesn't mean that the Philippines goes the extra mile to explain things for China," Heydarian said. "The way they do it is sometimes not optimal to say the least."

He emphasized that while it matters what is written in the notes verbales, "it also matters what you say to the public."

"What is the content of the note verbale, and is it conflicting with your public statement? Does it fit into a coherent national strategy in ensuring that the Philippine interests in South China Sea are protected?" Heydarian asked.

U.P. Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal likewise said the issuance of such notes "doesn't tell you anything about (their) content."

"(The Chinese) government may or may not respond; non-response could be taken as acquiescence or agreement to content of (the note)," Batongbacal explained. "It depends on what is said."

However, the notes may serve as documentation for the complaints should the need for it arise.

"If our rights are violated, a diplomatic protest is in order," former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario told CNN Philippines. "Failure to formally protest can serve to weaken our legal position."

Del Rosario previously criticized Duterte's foreign policy shift toward China. He served under President Benigno Aquino III and was one of the key figures in filing a case against China in the arbitral tribunal.