President Rodrigo Duterte told Congress on Monday he had no power to enforce his country’s ownership of territories claimed by China in the South China Sea.
Duterte made the statement during the annual State of the Nation Address, just two weeks after his foreign and defense departments backed a position by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accusing China of bullying Southeast Asian countries.
Duterte said the nation could not afford to go to war over South China Sea territories.
“I am powerless there. I’m willing to admit it,” he said, suggesting that the conflicts were better treated as “diplomatic endeavors.”
“China is claiming it, we are claiming it. China has the arms, we do not have it. So, it’s simple as that. They are in possession of the property… So what can we do? We have to go to war. And I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can. But I cannot.”
Duterte also cautioned against the United States returning to Subic Bay, a massive port north of Manila that was a U.S. military base before being shut down in 1992.
“If you put a base there at this time, this will ensure that if war breaks out – because there would be atomic arsenals brought in – this would (lead to) the extinction of the Filipino race,” he said.
It was not immediately clear why Duterte spoke of a military base. U.S. and Australian companies have mounted a joint effort to purchase and potentially set up a naval repair facility at Subic, following the bankruptcy of the South Korean shipbuilding company that ran the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.
The U.S. embassy in Manila did not comment when contacted by BenarNews.
Duterte, who has been drifting toward strengthening relations with China since he assumed power in 2016, said Manila would “continue to pursue an independent foreign policy.”
“Neither beholden nor a pawn to anyone, we broaden the boundaries of Philippine diplomacy, we develop productive ties with everyone willing to engage us on the basis of equality and mutual respect,” he said.
A plea to President Xi
The statement came two weeks after Pompeo announced a tougher a stance against China, accusing Beijing of trying to build a “maritime empire” in the South China Sea.
“We are making clear: Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is its campaign of bullying to control them,” Pompeo said in July 13 statement.
He spoke as the Philippines marked the fourth anniversary of the July 12, 2016, decision by The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that junked China’s claims to the South China Sea.
Duterte has not enforced the ruling and instead aligned himself with China despite his country’s defense treaty with the U.S., which once based its largest overseas military installations north of Manila.
Satellite imagery and vessel tracking data shows a China Coast Guard vessel has been patrolling Scarborough Shoal since July 20. The shoal is claimed by the Philippines and sits on the Philippine continental shelf. In addition, vessel tracking data shows a Chinese survey ship was within 200 nautical miles of the Philippine coast on July 21.
On Monday, Duterte said he spoke with his Chinese counterpart and asked to be among the first countries to have access to a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Beijing.
“Four days ago, I made a plea to President Xi Jinping that if they have the vaccine, can they allow us to be one of the first, or if needed, we have to buy it,” Duterte said.
He appealed to the public to cooperate in battling the coronavirus, saying it had wreaked havoc on the economy even as the country had appeared to “withstand the headwinds” of the virus.
“Let me say that the strength of a nation rests in the hands of the people acting as one with government in the pursuit of common goals and objectives,” Duterte said.
The Philippine health department reported 16 deaths and 1,657 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the totals 1,945 and 82,040. Globally, nearly 16.3 million have contracted the coronavirus and nearly 650,000 have died, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Duterte spent a portion of his speech commenting on ABS-CBN Corp., the television network that his allies in Congress recently voted to shut down. The network has been critical in reporting on the government.
“That happened after the [House] Committee on Franchises voted 70-11 to deny the grant of franchise to ABS-CBN,” Duterte said. “Great wealth enables economic elites and corporations to influence public policy to their advantage,” he said.
Duterte said the family that owns ABS-CBN had used it in “battles with political figures.”
“I am a casualty of the Lopezes during the 2016 elections,” he said, referring to an incident when ABS-CBN apparently did not air his political ads during the presidential campaign.
He warned other business owners he would take over vital services if they did not shape up.
“For the remaining two years of my term, all that is good that belongs to government, whether it be airwaves, lines or whatever that is good for the people, will belong to the government,” Duterte said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of activists joined a protest in Manila ahead of Duterte’s address. The fishermen’s group Pamalakaya criticized the president for his defeatist stand on the South China Sea, but said it was expected.
“Asserting what is ours does not mean declaring war with the aggressor,” said Fernando Hicap, a Pamalakaya leader. “Mr. Duterte should be reminded over and over that we have all the legal, political and historical claim over our exclusive economic zone being robbed by China.”
Other protesters carried signs and banners denouncing Duterte’s policies including the new anti-terror law they warned could be used against critics denouncing his drugs war that has left thousands dead.
Drake Long in Washington contributed to this report.