The Philippines’ national security adviser called on Friday for Chinese diplomats to be expelled over an alleged leak of a phone conversation with a Filipino admiral, in a significant escalation of a bitter row over the South China Sea.

China’s embassy in Manila had orchestrated “repeated acts of engaging and dissemination of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation”, with the objective of sowing discord, division and disunity, Eduardo Ano said in a statement.

Those actions “should not be allowed to pass unsanctioned without serious penalty”, he said.

China’s embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the call to expel diplomats. The office of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr and the foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The two countries have been embroiled in a series of stand-offs in disputed areas of the South China Sea as the Philippines, emboldened by support from the United States and other allies, steps up its activities in waters patrolled by China’s coastguard.

China has accused the Philippines of trespassing and of treachery, while Manila has scolded Beijing for what it says is a policy of aggression and dangerous manoeuvring.

The expelling of diplomats could intensify a row that has so far seen heated exchanges, diplomatic protests and the ramming and water-cannoning of Philippine ships at two disputed shoals in the South China Sea.
Ano was referring to a news report this week of an alleged leak of a call between a Chinese diplomat and a Filipino admiral discussing a dispute over the South China Sea, which carried a transcript that showed the admiral agreeing to concessions with China.

According to the transcript published by the Manila Times, a Philippine admiral had agreed to China’s proposal of a “new model”, where the Philippines would use fewer vessels in resupply missions to troops at the Second Thomas Shoal, and notify Beijing about missions in advance.

Reuters has not heard the reported phone conversation and could not verify the contents of the published transcript. The report said the conversation had taken place in January and the transcript was provided by a “ranking Chinese official”, which it did not name.

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Why the South China Sea dispute remains one of the region’s most pressing issues

Why the South China Sea dispute remains one of the region’s most pressing issues

Ano said he backed the defence minister’s call for the foreign ministry to take appropriate action against embassy officials, who he said claimed to have recorded an alleged phone conversation in violation of Philippine laws, including its anti-wiretapping act, as well as serious breaches of diplomatic protocols.

“Those individuals in the Chinese embassy … and those responsible for these malign influence and interference operations must be removed from the country immediately,” he said.

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said on Wednesday the embassy in Manila had released details about “relevant communications” between the two countries on managing the situation at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has for stations troops at a grounded warship.

Lin did not elaborate on what details or communications were released, but said “facts are clear and backed by hard evidence that cannot be denied.”

“The Philippines has insisted on denying these objective facts and seeks to mislead the international community,” Lin added.

China has long been vexed by the Philippines’ stationing of a small group of marines at the Second Thomas Shoal aboard a warship that it intentionally grounded 25 years ago.

Beijing has repeatedly said the Philippines had agreed to tow that ship away, which Manila has rejected.