MANILA — The Philippine government under the famously foul-mouthed Rodrigo Duterte has at times conducted its diplomacy with the most undiplomatic of language.
In dealing with China, by contrast, Mr. Duterte has generally chosen honey over vinegar, fearful of the consequences of lashing out. But on Monday, that did not stop his top diplomat from doing exactly that.
“China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see…,” wrote Teodoro Locsin Jr., Mr. Duterte’s foreign minister, in a tirade on his personal Twitter account. Then, in direct and vulgar terms, he demanded that Beijing pull its ships out of Manila’s waters in the South China Sea.
“What are you doing to our friendship?” he continued. “You. Not us. We’re trying. You. You’re like an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend.”
The comments by Mr. Locsin, a loquacious and sometimes controversial presence on Twitter, served as a punctuation mark to a strongly but more soberly worded demand issued on Monday by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs.
It called on China to remove its vessels from waters around the Kalayaan Island Group and the Scarborough Shoal, saying that Beijing had no “law enforcement rights in the areas.”
“The unauthorized and lingering presence of these vessels is a blatant infringement of Philippine sovereignty,” it added, stressing that Philippine maritime patrols and training exercises in the areas were a “legitimate and routine act of a sovereign country in its territory.”
The department also protested “shadowing, blocking, dangerous maneuver and radio challenges” by the Chinese Coast Guard against its Philippine counterpart around the Scarborough Shoal last week.
China has been largely ignoring Manila’s demands for a pullout, keeping dozens of vessels in Philippine waters, and Manila has responded by filing daily diplomatic protests with Beijing.
The triangular chain of atolls and reefs that is the subject of the dispute between the Philippines and China is well within Manila’s economic zone, about 123 miles off Subic Bay in Luzon Island.
But the Chinese government claims sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea, and it has drawn warnings from the Biden administration not to provoke conflict as it moves aggressively to prosecute these claims.
In 2016, just as Mr. Duterte was assuming the presidency, the Philippines took its case against China to an international arbitration court, and it ruled in favor of the Philippines.
During his nearly five years in power, though, he has mostly chosen not to antagonize China, hoping to keep aid from the giant neighbor flowing. That stance stands in contrast to how Mr. Duterte has treated Barack Obama and the European Union, which have both been targets of his verbal attacks. Mr. Duterte has acknowledged his profane ways, saying at one point that God had advised him to tone it down.
Last week, Mr. Duterte profusely thanked China for delivering Covid-19 vaccines to the country, saying he was deeply indebted. And on Monday, he appeared to receive his first dose of the Chinese-made Sinopharm vaccine, according to a livestream shared on Facebook by a Filipino lawmaker.
Still, the territorial issues are a red line of sorts for the Philippines, even if Mr. Duterte has at times sounded almost apologetic in explaining his case.
He said that Philippine patrols in the area would not cease, but that his country did not want to “trouble” China, especially with “a war.”
“There are things that are not really subject to a compromise, such as us pulling back” our patrols, Mr. Duterte said. “It’s difficult. I hope they understand, but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”
During a cabinet meeting late Monday night, Mr. Duterte blasted away at critics who had accused him of going easy on Beijing.
“China remains to be our benefactor,” he said, “and just because we have a conflict with China does not mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful.”