Beijing last to block passage in South China Sea, Chinese envoy says amid reported bullying on oil explorations

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 30) — Beijing would be the last to impede freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a Chinese envoy claimed, despite recent reports that Chinese militia boats have continued to circle contested waters within another country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In a speech on Monday, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua appears to refute claims that the Mainland is actively blocking oil and gas exploration ventures of Malaysia and Vietnam off the disputed waters.

"[I]f South China Sea’s freedom of navigation is disrupted or even blocked by someone, we don’t need too much imagination to conclude that China is going to be somewhat badly hit because oil and gas now are the life block for economic and social growth," Zhao said during his speech for the anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army. "So China is the last country who would like to see that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is impeded or disrupted."

Independent think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative said earlier this month that China is risking a flare-up in the contested waters as they block exploration activities of its neighbors, as it conducts its own survey of the natural resources embedded in the area. Chinese vessels were seen patrolling off the coasts of Malaysia and Vietnam, asserting that no country can drill in these waters "without the permission of the Chinese government."

READ: China ramping up efforts to block oil, gas explorations by neighbors in South China Sea – think tank

"We would like to work not only with the Philippines, with other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, also with other powers outside this region, for it is in our common interest to make sure that (the) South China Sea continues to enjoy relative peace and stability and with freedom of navigation and overflight unchanged and uninterrupted, particularly for the commercial vessels and for their oil tankers," the Chinese envoy said.

Unlike other Southeast Asian claimants, President Rodrigo Duterte has signed a memorandum of understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping for future plans to carry out a joint oil exploration with Beijing.

The East Asian giant has been reportedly harassing Filipino fishermen and sending their own boats to poach in the West Philippine Sea, ignoring the decision of an international tribunal which hailed the area as within the Philippines' EEZ.

The illegal fishing in local waters comes amidst reports from the Blue Ocean Network that say China is facing a fish shortage, and that Chinese vessels are crossing over to cast their nets into other seas, causing tensions not only with the Philippines, but also Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, and even as far as West Africa and South America, where authorities in Argentina sank a Chinese vessel that attempted to ram an Argentinian coast guard boat.

On June 9, a Chinese vessel crashed and sank the Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver, and sped away, leaving the 22 fishermen aboard adrift for hours, swimming for their lives. The men were rescued by a passing Vietnamese vessel.

Coast Guard-Marina report: China vessel 'failed' to take action to avoid Recto Bank collision

Just last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana reported that Chinese aircraft passed through Sibutu Strait off Tawi-Tawi without informing Manila, breaking protocol.

Call for calm

The Chinese diplomat also claimed that the situation in the South China Sea has "stabilized in general," maintaining that Beijing remains committed to "peace and stability" in the area.

Zhao likewise called for sobriety in claiming the hotly-contested islands.

"Despite the differences we have, we are ready to discuss with claimants over the differences we have. We always believe dialogue is much better than confrontation," he said, citing that it's "not easy to settle."

However, the original version of Zhao's speech sent to the media on Tuesday morning read that China believes resolving issues "by law" is much better than confrontation. The Chinese embassy released a "polished and corrected" version of the envoy's speech hours later.

The Philippines has been repeatedly citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for its claim to the area being disputed by China.

"It cannot be settled overnight. So we should be patient. We should have confidence in our wisdom that sooner or later we can settle peacefully... We cannot let the 1 percent differences, the whole 99 percent of friendship and cooperation as hostage. This is what I call the realistic and pragmatic approach," Zhao added.

READ: China vows not to wage war with any country

The arbitral ruling largely favored the Philippines in the 15 points it brought up for arbitration, and recognized Manila's sovereign rights in some of the features being claimed by China that were within the country's 200-nautical mile EEZ.

China continues to claim the entire South China Sea, despite the arbitral ruling favoring the Philippines. Beijing stood pat on "historical fact" as their claim to the waters, even after the tribunal dismissed their ancient maps bearing the nine-dash line to mark their supposed territory.

Walk the talk

China said it will not "take the first shot" over disputes, but would not hesitate for self-defense. In a media briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the territorial row will be "the subject of continuous negotiation," but clarified that government will still take caution in dealing with Beijing.

"We do not take words of other countries on their face value. The President will always think beyond those words," Panelo said.

Separately, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Zhao's remarks "does not match what they are doing on the ground" based on the Philippines' experience.

"Until such time that their action is matched by the words, then doubtful 'yung mga sinasabi nila. Narrative lang siguro 'yan para it's good to be heard but just to keep us calm or palubag-loob sa atin," Lorenzana said in reaction to the ambassador's speech. "The bottomline is hindi magkatugma 'yung sinasabi nila sa ginagawa nila sa West Philippine Sea [there's a stark difference between what they are saying and what they are actually doing in the West Philippine Sea]."

Zhao likewise pointed out current "military-to-military" ties between China and the Philippines as a key pillar of bilateral relations. He also pledged to support the creation of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, as led by Manila.

The Philippines is the country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021. ASEAN has been pushing for decades for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea but progress has been slow because of resistance from China.