Philippines' Duterte issues gag order on cabinet over South China Sea spat

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte prevented his cabinet from speaking publicly about the South China Sea on Monday after weeks of violent reprimands by his ministers against China's behavior in the disputed waters.
Tensions between the Philippines and its huge neighbor have increased since March. Manila filed daily diplomatic protests against the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in disputed parts of the South China Sea.
"This is now my command to the cabinet and to everyone speaking for the government not to discuss the West Philippine Sea with anyone," Duterte said in a national televised address.
Manila refers to the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.
"When we talk, we only talk to each other," he said.
Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea, where about $ 3 trillion of shipping trades are carried out every year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that this claim, which China bases on ancient maps, was incompatible with international law.
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has had closer ties with China, putting aside the territorial spit in return for Beijing's pledges to receive billions in loans, aid and investments, many of which are forthcoming.
Duterte Defense and Foreign Ministers and his legal adviser have taken strong positions against Beijing as hundreds of Chinese ships operate in Manila's 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone.
The Philippines believe the Chinese ships are manned by militias and describe their presence as "gushing and threatening" as they continue to demand the flotilla's immediate withdrawal.
Duterte has rejected a call by China to withdraw ships from disputed areas of the South China Sea, saying he will not bow to the pressure even if it jeopardizes his friendship with Beijing.
The Beijing Embassy in Manila was not immediately available for comment outside of office hours. Chinese diplomats said the boats were sheltering from rough seas and there were no militia on board.
(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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Rodrigo Duterte

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