Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told congress during a speech on Monday that he had no choice but accept Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea because, he said, the Chinese had deployed missiles in the maritime region within striking distance of Manila.
While he maintained that the Chinese were increasingly encroaching in Philippine areas of the disputed sea, he said during his fourth “state of the nation” address that his government would move to reclaim its territories in “due time.”
In his 90-minute speech, Duterte also defended his administration’s drug war that has left more than 6,600 dead and led the United Nations Human Rights Council to call for a U.N. investigation into it.
“The West Philippine (Sea) is ours. There is no ifs and buts. It is ours but we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today,” Duterte said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Discussing overlapping territorial claims in the sea, Duterte said the Philippines must “perform a delicate balancing act,” as he defended China for the first time in a speech to congress.
“A shooting war is a grief and misery multiplier. War leaves widows and orphans in its wake,” he said. “I am not ready or inclined to accept the occurrence of more destruction, more widows and more orphans, should war, even on a limited scale, break out.”
He argued that better results with China could be reached “in the privacy of a conference room than a squabble in public.”
Duterte, who is under pressure from critics who want him to stand up to Chinese ships encroaching in the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) within the maritime region, said the government would do just that “in due time.”
Recounting his first trip to China as president in 2016, Duterte said he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would drill for oil in the South China Sea. Duterte recalled how Xi, in a soft voice, had warned him that should he insist, “it can mean trouble.”
China claims most of the mineral-rich sea that is home to some of the world’s most important international shipping lanes. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping claims.
“If the trouble comes out from the mouth of a president of a republic, what can I do?” Duterte asked. “We cannot you know, have our cake and eat it too.”
He said the Chinese had deployed “guided missiles” in an island that Beijing controls in the South China Sea. “And the fastest ones they have installed there can reach Manila in seven minutes. You want war?”
In addition, Duterte said if he were to send marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen “I guarantee you, not one of them will come home alive.”
‘China’s repeated provocative actions’
Duterte’s speech occurred shortly after the Philippines accused a Chinese trawler of sinking a Philippine fishing boat and abandoning 22 Filipino fishermen in the sea. Manila initially reacted angrily to the incident, but Duterte later downplayed it as a maritime incident.
On Monday, he said the Philippine and Chinese sides had agreed to investigate the incident separately, and when both sides were done “we should meet and compare notes and let us determine who pays for what damage.”
After meeting with Philippine officials in Manila last week amid reports that China had tested anti-ship ballistic missiles in the sea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell affirmed that defense ties were strong and vital to the region.
On Saturday, the American State Department expressed concern over reports about “coercion” and “interference” by Chinese coast guard vessels with oil and gas activities by other claimants to the South China Sea.
On July 16, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which is backed by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), reported that the Chinese coast guard had, twice in six weeks, “harassed” oil and gas operations conducted in the sea by Malaysia and Vietnam.
“China’s repeated provocative actions aimed at the offshore oil and gas development of other claimant states threaten regional energy security and undermine the free and open Indo-Pacific energy market,” the State Department said in a statement.
“The United States firmly opposes coercion and intimidation by any claimant to assert its territorial or maritime claims,” it went on to say, calling on Beijing to refrain from “bullying behavior.”
On Monday, China lashed out at U.S. officials over the comments.
“For a long time, external forces including the U.S. have been making wanton remarks on this issue, stirring up troubles and sowing discord with ill intentions. Such behaviors will only disrupt the situation in the South China Sea and undermine regional peace and stability,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news conference.
As he addressed his nation on Monday night, Duterte blamed former President Benigno Aquino III for allowing the Chinese to occupy areas in the Scarborough Shoal.
Aquino brought the case to an international court when Beijing reneged on a deal to pull leave the area after Manila accused the Chinese of encroaching on the Philippines’ EEZ.
The court ruled for the Philippines in July 2016, a month after Duterte took office.
But instead of moving to enforce the order, Duterte shelved it to appease China. He has said that action along with restoring ties led to billions of investment pledges from Chinese economic benefactors.
In the streets of Manila and other Philippine cities, meanwhile, an estimated 40,000 protesters braved heavy rains to denounce Duterte’s pro-China stance. In the Philippine capital, they burned effigies of Duterte and fake Chinese flags.
“China, get out!” a group chanted while marching near Congress in northern Manila.
“Filipino fishers are most often the front-line casualties of this long-running sea row and have been enduring the Chinese-perpetrated violence and intimidation on a regular fishing basis,” said Fernando Hicap, head of the fishermen’s group Pamalakaya.
“The fishers are sick and tired of his pack of lies and rhetoric to cover-up his incompetence and criminal neglect to advance the interest of the country and the Filipino people,” he said.
Drug war to go on
Among those who attended the speech at congress were Duterte’s former chief of police, Ronald dela Rosa, and ex-chief aide Bong Go, who were elected to the Senate in May. They joined other members of the Duterte-controlled senate including Imee Marcos, the daughter of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, whose family is a political ally of the president.
Dela Rosa carried out the first phase of Duterte drug war, which has killed 6,600 suspected drug dealers and addicts since Duterte took office, according to government figures. Rights groups said the number could be higher.
In his speech Duterte said the drug war would continue through the end of his six-year term in 2022.
“For it is not the eagle in the fight, but the fight in the eagle that matters. Believe me, I will end my term fighting,” he said.
“It has been three years since I took my oath of office and it pains me to say that we have not learned our lesson. The illegal drug problem persists, corruption continues,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato, Richel V. Umel in Iligan and Basilio Sepe in Manila contributed to this report.