Updated at 7:08 a.m. ET on 2018-05-21
The Philippines was not in a position to antagonize Beijing over its military expansionism in the South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said, amid latest intelligence reports about the Chinese air force’s deployment of nuclear-capable bombers to the disputed region.
Duterte touched on the issue during a speech in central Cebu city late Saturday, a day after the Chinese military announced that it had landed bombers, including its modern H-6K, on an outpost in the South China Sea for the first time. A transcript of his remarks was only made available on Sunday.
The Philippines is “caught in a limbo,” Duterte said, because it didn’t “have the assurance that America will remain by our side if a war breaks out.”
The Philippines falls within a 1,000-nautical mile (1,852-km) radius capability of the Chinese bombers, the think-tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said.
This means that Manila and all five Philippine military bases earmarked for development under a joint Philippines-U.S. initiative are within range, said the AMTI, which tracks maritime security issues in the region.
“What will we arm ourselves with if there’s a war? Will we resort to slapping each other?” Duterte said.
He said the Philippines did not stand a chance against China if war broke out, noting that Chinese jets could reach the country within a matter of minutes.
“So will we be able to win that war? If my troops will be massacred, after the war, the soldiers and police will come after me next. Our troops will really be finished off there,” the president said.
Earlier, the Chinese air force said it had deployed bombers to territories that Beijing claims in the South China Sea, according to news agency reports.
“A division of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organized multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to ‘reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all direction,’” PLAAF said in a statement issued on Friday, according to a report by Reuters.
Duterte said he had raised the issue of competing claims to the sea region with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jiping, who had told him “not to ruin the relationship.”
“We don’t have to fight. We can divide this in a joint development, joint exploration,” he said, without being specific.
Last week, Duterte sought to pin blame on his predecessor Benigno Aquino, whose administration had filed an international arbitration case against China.
A ruling favoring the Philippines came out in July 2016, soon after Duterte handily won the presidency. China, however, refused to comply with the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration and continued with its island-building activities in the region.
Duterte, instead of seeking to enforce the ruling, softened his stance and sought to appease Beijing. One of his first officials acts as president was to visit China.
The reports on the Chinese bombers came shortly after AMTI also said that China had reportedly installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a disputed group of atolls and isles in the South China Sea. The mineral-rich region is also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
AMTI published satellite photos of Chinese military intelligence aircraft in one of the islands that Beijing controls and that lies 12 nautical miles (22.2 km) from Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island), where the Philippines maintains a small contingent that includes about 100 civilians.
‘A serious threat’
On Sunday, opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros called for a review of the Philippines’ bilateral ties with China, although the Department of Foreign Affairs has remained quiet on the issue.
“We can’t call a country that robs us of our islands and threatens us with nuclear war a friend,” Hontiveros said, noting that China has “virtually threatened us with nuclear war over the West Philippine Sea.”
The West Philippine Sea is the local name of the South China Sea.
“This is unacceptable. This is a serious threat to the lives of our citizens, an assault on our Constitution and a direct violation of internationally-recognized treaties to which we are a signatory,” Hontiveros added.
“I challenge President Duterte and his foreign affairs officials to end their subservience to China and muster the necessary political courage to stand up to protect our national sovereignty and the lives of our citizens,” Hontiveros said.
Former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, who remains active in intelligence circles, called on Duterte to convene his national security council and strongly protest China’s latest move.
“This time we must protest,” Golez said, noting that the Chinese bombers constituted a “clear and present danger” to the Philippines and other allies in the region.
Should Duterte and his foreign secretary still fail to issue a “robust response,” the Philippine Senate must immediately hold a hearing to craft a resolution urging him to do so, Golez added.
Felipe Villamor in Manila and Karl Romano in Dagupan City, Philippines contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly converted the radius capability of the H-6K bomber from nautical miles to kilometers.