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Philippines' Duterte issues gag order over South China Sea

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By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has barred his cabinet from talking about the South China Sea in public, but said the gag order did not mean the country was wavering in its defence of its sovereign rights.

His decision follows weeks of strong rebukes of China by his ministers over the presence of hundreds of fishing vessels in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), fuelling tensions that have gone against Duterte’s policy of rapprochement and non-confrontation with Beijing.

“This is my order now to the cabinet, and to all and sundry talking for the government, to refrain from discussing the West Philippine Sea with anybody,” Duterte said in a televised address, using the local name for its EEZ.

“If we talk, we talk but just among us,” he said.

But Duterte later clarified his order should not be construed as weakness and on Tuesday said maritime patrols must continue.

“Our agencies have been directed to do what they must and should to protect and defend our nation’s interest,” Duterte said in a statement.

“We will not waver in our position.”

Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea and has built military installations equipped with missiles on reefs in disputed areas, including within the Philippine EEZ, alongside a constant presence of coastguard and fishing vessels.

China’s maritime conduct has been a constant problem for Duterte, who has refrained from criticising Beijing and instead praised its leadership, hoping to secure big investments. His approach has frustrated nationalists.

His defence and foreign ministers and his legal adviser have taken strong positions lately on what they have called a “swarming and threatening” presence of Chinese vessels they believes are manned by militias.

China’s embassy in Manila has denied the presence of militias. It did not respond to requests for comment on Monday and Tuesday.

The gag order could lessen tensions at the rhetorical level, said Aaron Jed Rabena of the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress, a Manila-based think tank.

“It could be that President Duterte has realised that it’s high time for his administration to speak with one voice given the mixed signals … which show a government that is incoherent,” Rabena said.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Nick Macfie, Martin Petty)

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