China’s push into Philippine-claimed waters has again riled the nation’s top brass, bringing into sharp relief the defense establishment’s skeptical view of President Rodrigo Duterte’s engagement policy.

In a sharply worded statement, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana condemned on what he termed as China’s “bullying” in the South China Sea. “The bottom line is what they’re saying does not match their actions in the [South China Sea]” he said on July 30.

Lorenzana, a consistent skeptic of Duterte’s Beijing-leaning policies, made the comments in response to an earlier speech by Chinese Ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua, who maintained that Beijing has no aggressive intentions in the region.

“They want peace in the South China Sea, blah blah blah, but it does not reflect what they are doing on the ground,” the Philippine defense minister said.

Lorenzana’s provocative comments exposed deepening rifts within the Philippine government on how to handle China’s escalating aggression in adjacent waters, as well as a rapid unregulated influx of Chinese nationals into the country.

The nation’s China policy remains a deeply contested realm, one where Duterte apparently doesn’t hold the final word as his top deputies contradict his conciliatory line.

It’s unclear how much of the messaging is a good-cop, bad-cop routine, and how much a genuine disconnect at the highest levels amid rising public anger towards China. Filipinos have expressed rising anti-China sentiment in a series of street demonstrations.

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (L) and China’s Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jinghua (C) inspect Chinese government-donated weapons at the military headquarters in Manila, October 5, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Lorenzana also made pointed reference to China’s 2012 seizure of the Scarborough Shoal, a feature within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and China’s subsequent harassment of Filipino fishermen in the area. Duterte, for his part, has recently blamed the US for not coming to the Philippines’ defense during the standoff.

“That is what I have questioned during the Shangri-La, wherein they said we do not bully people around and they follow international law,” Lorenzana said, referencing a top-level security talk shop held in Singapore in late May. “But I said, you are not. What you are telling us is not what you are doing on the ground.”

At a reception marking the 92nd anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) held in Manila late last month, Beijing’s ambassador assured gathered Filipinos that China “will not take the first shot” amid the two sides’ festering and intensifying maritime disputes.

“China adopts a military strategy of active defense which adheres to the principle of defense, self-defense, and post-strike response. Meaning, we will not take the first shot,” Zhao said while maintaining that China seeks to resolve its differences with the Philippines through peaceful dialogue.

“No matter how strong China may become, China will never seek hegemony or never establish spheres of influence,” the Chinese envoy maintained.

But Philippine defense officials are increasingly fumed by what they see as a contradiction in China’s words and actions in the South China Sea. Security analysts believe China is moving towards the establishment of an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), potentially giving it command control over the sea’s traffic.

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“I have heard the version of that speech many times already. I heard that from the mouth of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping when we met him with the President, first time we met in 2016,” Lorenzana said. “Until such time that their words are matched with deeds, then all of the pronouncements of Chinese officials are doubtful.”

Lorenzana also accused China of “a failure to observe protocol or common courtesy” upon revealing that five Chinese warships passed through Philippine territorial waters in the past month without notifying its officials.

The Chinese vessels reportedly turned off their Automatic Identification System (AIS), which allows littoral states to detect the movement of foreign ships on their radars when passing through the waters.

“I told them that they should not turn off their AIS,” Lorenzana added.

Foreign warships can exercise their right to innocent passage within the territorial waters of littoral states provided it’s “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state,” according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

That passage, however, is no longer legally innocent if, among others, the foreign warships “exercise or practice with weapons of any kind”, engage in “collecting information to the prejudice of the defense or security of the coastal state”, and “carry out research or survey activities” without the state’s permission, the UNCLOS says.

“These [Chinese] ships, apparently, when they have passed by Sibutu Strait, they turned off their AIS so our radar can’t detect [them],” Lorenzana told the Philippine media.

Navy personnel of Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Navy personnel of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Twitter

“If they are passing on broad daylight and they turned it off, it means they do not want to be seen. But we still see them. So what’s the use of putting off your AIS?” he added, raising the possibility of “bad faith” on the part of Chinese warships.

Philippine policy towards China is hardening on other fronts. National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr upped the rhetorical ante by raising his top-level concern over an influx of Chinese nationals into the Philippines in recent years.

“I have the tendency to look at it as a threat,” Esperon said during a public forum on July 31. He went on to openly question whether Chinese tourists and workers in the country strictly follow local laws, including immigration requirements.

“I’m on the cautious side because when foreigners, regardless of nationality, come in and their intent is not clear or when some of them are undocumented or have wrong documentation, forged documentation meaning some of them would come in as tourists and yet end up as workers,” Esperon said.

His statement came just days after the Philippine Navy reported that several Chinese tourists were caught illegally taking photographs inside a major military facility on the island of Palawan, which is situated close to the disputed Spratly islands.

Philippine National Bureau of Investigation police arrest illegal Chinese migrants who reputedly ran online gambling sites, Manila, December 2018. Photo: Twitter

“We want more tourists, but there is always another side of the coin…We must not let our guards down,” the national security adviser added, citing the threat of espionage and China’s National Intelligence Law which obliges its citizens to support the state’s national intelligence network.

In response, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr raised the possibility of cancelling visa-on-arrival privileges for Chinese citizens, a tourism-promoting policy introduced under Duterte.

“We need to put an end to visas upon arrival; all visas should be issued by consular offices after vetting,” the Philippines top diplomat wrote on Twitter.

Those hardening lines are at apparent odds with Duterte, who earlier this month described China as a “friend” and crucial development partner.

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on October 20, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool

He recently revealed a behind the scenes deal he struck with Beijing to allow Chinese fishermen to enter and exploit Philippine waters to de-escalate tensions, a revelation that sparked an uproar and raised questions about the legality of the agreement.

Earlier this year, Duterte pushed back against growing public concerns over the unregulated inflow, by some estimates, of hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers, saying that “allow the Chinese here to work. Let them.”

At the time, the president said he feared Beijing could retaliate against Filipinos working in China if he moved to round up and deport its nationals.