Duterte insists Philippines cannot afford war against China

Dennis Jay Santos and Jojo Riñoza
2022.06.13
Manila
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Duterte insists Philippines cannot afford war against China President Rodrigo Duterte discusses Sino-Philippine relations during the commissioning of the BRP Melchora Aquino into the Philippine Coast Guard fleet, at the Port of Manila, June 12, 2022.
(Handout photo/Presidential Communications Operations Office)

The Philippines cannot afford war with China, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte told Filipino coast guard personnel in what could be his final policy statement on the South China Sea issue, after Manila filed fresh diplomatic protests over Chinese boats in disputed waters.

With a few weeks left in his presidency, Duterte made the remark during a ceremony on Sunday to commission the BRP Melchora Aquino, the latest addition to the Philippine Coast Guard’s fleet. The so-called “multi-role response vessel” will help the force patrol the Philippine archipelago’s vast shorelines and deter Chinese incursions into waters claimed by Manila, officials said. 

“We cannot afford fighting with China. We cannot win and we will lose and the population will suffer,” he said, according to an official transcript of his speech released on Monday. 

Duterte spoke out after the Department of Foreign Affairs announced last Thursday that it had “protested the return of over 100 Chinese vessels illegally operating in the waters in and around Julian Felipe Reef on 04 April 2022, barely a year after the same swarming incident was protested by the Philippine government.”

Then on Friday, the department announced another protest against Beijing in a series of tweets – this time around the Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands – alleging that Chinese boats were fishing illegally and Chinese coast guard ships were shadowing Philippine supply ships.

During the commissioning ceremony, Duterte said, “We do not send gray ships there because those are vessels for war. It would project a different picture for everybody,” noting that Coast Guard ships, unlike navy ships, are painted white.

In his speech, Duterte also alluded to Chinese leader Xi Jinping as “a friend,” but said the Philippines periodically had to assert “what is ours.” 

“And we have talked a lot in the many visits that I did in the past years. But I made it clear to him that we cannot give up sovereignty over the waters in the West Philippine Sea, including the exclusive economic zone because it’s vital for our national life,” Duterte said, using the Philippine name for territories claimed by Manila in the South China Sea.

The Chinese government did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment on Duterte’s statement.

The Philippines had previously issued a statement following a telephone call between the two leaders in April, during which Duterte and Xi agreed on the need for “positive engagements” over the disputed waterway.

On June 30, Duterte will hand over the reins of government to Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the president-elect who promised last month that, under his administration, the country would “assert” its maritime territorial rights. 

Neither of the statements issued by the Philippine foreign office last week noted when the two latest protests were filed and whether Chinese boats and ships remained in Philippine waters.

In March and April, Philippine complaints about hundreds of Chinese ships and boats clustering near Whitsun Reef were the focus of bilateral tensions over the contested sea.

The latest protests came about 10 days after the department summoned a senior Chinese diplomat to protest the China Coast Guard’s alleged harassment of a joint Filipino-Taiwanese research ship in the South China Sea in April.

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