Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he would dispatch military ships to the South China Sea if Beijing began drilling for oil and minerals in territory that Manila claims in the disputed waterway.
Duterte made the comments amid criticism that he has done too little to stop China from expanding its claims in the potentially mineral-rich maritime region, and following a controversy about more than 200 Chinese ships moored at Whitsun Reef and other waters in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
“I already told the Chinese government, I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish really to quarrel about,” Duterte said in a late-night address on Monday, referring to Beijing’s claim that its ships at the Whitsun Reef were fishing boats.
“I am addressing myself to the Chinese government. We want to remain friends, we want to share whatever it is. … But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever is in the bowels of the [South] China Sea, then by that time I will send my gray ships there to state a claim. That you can be sure of,” Duterte said, according to official transcripts, which were released Tuesday.
The Philippine president said Manila would act if any other country started exploration activities in the area.
“If you start digging for oil, [or] nickel there, [or] precious stones – that would be the time because that is the time that we should act on it.”
In March, Manila filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing after Philippine security forces spotted what they described as 220 Chinese militia ships near Whitsun Reef, a shoal in the contested Spratly Islands.
As of the first week of April, 44 of the Chinese ships remained near that location and “showed no actual fishing activities,” Manila had said.
Last week, a government task force said that 240 Chinese Maritime Military ships were “lingering” in different Philippine-claimed areas of the South China Sea.
Since then, there has been no official update on the Chinese presence, but a Philippine security official told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, on Tuesday that some Chinese ships were still in the area of the reef, which China also claims.
On April 13, Manila summoned Beijing’s envoy to Manila, Hung Xi Lian, over the continued presence of the Chinese ships.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond publicly to Duterte’s remarks.
The president is perceived here as being soft on China’s intrusions in Philippine territorial waters in the sea since he took office in 2016.
After years of soft-pedaling on the issue, Duterte in September declared that a 2016 international arbitration court’s ruling in favor of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea was “beyond compromise.”
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own, but five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims in the waterway.
Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.
‘Friendship with China will lead nowhere’
Duterte has often said that the Philippines stood no chance if war broke out with China over the South China Sea. Enforcing claims in the waterway would end in conflict, he reiterated on in his late-night speech.
“The issue of the West Philippine Sea remains to be a question forever until such time that you know, we can take it back. For me, the only way is by war,” Duterte said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“There is no way that we can get back the Philippine Sea without any bloodshed.”
Duterte’s comments appear to indicate that he has given up on the Chinese presence in disputed waters, according to Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a leading voice in the opposition.
“My colleagues in the Senate, military officers, business groups, fisher folk, civil society organizations, and numerous individuals have strongly condemned China’s aggression in the WPS. But he could not even begin just to condemn them?” Hontiveros said.
No one was urging war, and the Philippine constitution explicitly renounces it, she said, but this did not mean giving up on the country’s rights.
“We should not accept a president who thinks the only way out of this dispute is through war,” Hontiveros said.
“So if a ‘war’ he cannot wage is the only way he can think of to confront China, then that betrays the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the highest office of the land.”
Besides, acquiescing to China on the disputed waters simply to prevent bloodshed would only lead to more losses for the Philippines, said Manuel Cabochan III, a member of the House of Representatives.
“Friendship with China will lead nowhere. The harassment of our fishermen and our soldiers has intensified,” he said.
“The Philippine should not be silent to the abuse of China. We should be the one more confident to assert our rights, especially with the backing of a favorable arbitration ruling.”
Other countries in the South China Sea have been standing up to China in asserting their sovereignty, the lawmaker said.
“But there is no war, and in fact, their economic relations continue,” Cabochan said.
“Duterte is just using that threat of war as a ruse for being a lapdog of China.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.