President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. (Photo courtesy of Office of the President)

MANILA – President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. on Tuesday said he has “complete trust” in the Philippine Navy’s account following another confrontation with the Chinese Coast Guard in the disputed South China Sea.

The Puerto Princesa, Palawan-based Western Command (Wescom) earlier said the Chinese Coast Guard ship “forcibly” seized floating debris that its personnel was towing to Philippine-held Pag-asa Island on Sunday, while China said they only acquired the floating object after a “friendly consultation” with the Philippine side.

“Hindi nagtugma ‘yung report ng Philippine Navy at saka ‘yung report na galing sa China (The report coming from the Philippine Navy and the report from China do not match) because the word forcibly was used in the Philippine Navy report. And that was not the characterization in the Chinese navy report or the report coming from China,” Marcos said in a chance interview with reporters following his attendance at the 49th founding anniversary of the Career Executive Service Board in Pasay City.

He said he wanted to get to the bottom of the issue, adding that he would ask China to explain their statement's stark contrast to the Philippine Navy’s report.

“We have to resolve this issue. Of course, I have complete trust in our Navy and if this is what they say happened, I can only believe that that is what happened,” Marcos said.

“We have now asked the Chinese, why is it that their account is so different and it’s much more benign – shall we use that word. Because the forcibly was used in the – at least in the initial reports of the Philippine Navy,” he added.

Note verbale

Marcos expressed support for the recommendation of National Security Adviser (NSA) Clarita Carlos for the Philippines to file a note verbale against China.

“I think that that’s what we need to do because when it was first reported to me by the Chief of Staff, I asked him to immediately call the military attaché in the Chinese embassy and to get a report,” he said.

He likewise said he looked forward to his upcoming state visit to China in January 2023 as it would be an opportunity to discuss ways to prevent confrontation and conflict in the highly-contested sea.

“These kinds of incidents are some of the things that I’m glad that I’m going to Beijing early January because these are the things that we need to work out because, with the way that the region, our region, Asia-Pacific is heating up, baka may magkamali lang, may mistake, may misunderstanding then lalaki ‘yung sunog (if someone makes a mistake, there’s a misunderstanding and the fire gets bigger),” he said.

“We don’t want that to happen. So we want to have a mechanism na we have to find a way na hindi na mangyari ‘yun, na wala tayong mga incident na ganyan (that incidents like that don’t happen again),” he added.

Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping have both called for the immediate conclusion of negotiations for the final and binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (SCS) to address the maritime disputes among littoral states during a bilateral meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

The two leaders agreed that the issuance of the COC in the SCS is vital in resolving disputes among sea claimants, including the Philippines and China.

The Philippines, China, and several other littoral states have overlapping claims in the SCS.

Beijing is claiming about 80 percent of the contested waters.

However, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, 2016, ruled against China’s supposed historic rights over nearly the entire SCS.

Military accounts

Department of National Defense (DND) officer-in-charge Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. said they are standing by the accounts of Filipino military personnel in the debris snatching incident off Pag-asa Island last Nov. 20.

"We stand by the accounts of our personnel in the area that, contrary to the narrative of the Chinese side, the debris being towed by a Philippine vessel to Naval Station Emilio Liwanag for inspection was rudely taken by personnel from CCGV-5203," he said in a statement Tuesday night.

Faustino also said the Philippine authorities are also investigating the reported explosions near Pag-asa Island after the incident involving the floating debris.

"The situation is still developing; thus, we cannot provide additional details at this time," he added.

Faustino also said the Armed Forces, together with relevant government agencies, are working to ensure the safety of our Filipino community in Pag-asa and the surrounding areas.

"We are reviewing all reports to determine our future actions," he added.

Faustino also said events like these are exactly why they are continuing to advocate for open lines of communication and dialogue mechanisms.

"We support the diplomatic efforts of Philippine government agencies to engage our Chinese counterparts to address the incident," he added. (with reports from Priam Nepomuceno/PNA)