President Rodrigo Duterte expressed hope that a joint oil and gas exploration deal in the South China Sea could help ease tensions with Beijing, which in recent weeks deployed warships in or near Manila’s territorial waters.
Duterte, who is scheduled to visit Beijing next week, made the statement during a speech on Wednesday, a day after warning that Chinese warships must seek clearance before passing through Philippine waters so as to avoid any misunderstanding.
Speaking during the Wednesday night inauguration of a solar power project in central Romblon province, Duterte said he would raise a 2016 decision by an international arbitration court that ruled in favor of Manila over Beijing in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
In his speech, a copy of which was obtained by BenarNews on Thursday, Duterte said he would raise the exploration and extraction deal that has been in the works since last year.
Full details of the deal, in which the Philippines would get the bigger chunk, have not been released, but the president hinted as early as last year that an area in the Reed Bank had been identified.
Reed Bank, also called Recto Bank, is within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“The proposal of 60-40 (percent division) in our favor would be a good start,” Duterte said, according to an official transcript released by the presidential palace. “I hope that it would graduate into something like towards how do we solve the arbitral ruling peacefully.”
Duterte said that while he would confront Chinese leader Xi Jinping about the arbitral award, the Philippine’ military was not equipped to go to war with China.
“I will just feed my army and the military and the police to the mouths of hell,” if that were to happen, the president said. “They will all die.”
Duterte is set to fly to Beijing on Aug. 28 for his fifth official visit to China since assuming the presidency three years ago.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have overlapping territorial claims to the sea, which is vital to international shipping and trade.
Duterte said he would, as much as possible, persuade China to “resolve this controversy peacefully.” He said his aides had advised him to choose his words carefully in raising the issue with China, but added he could not make that promise.
“So whether you like it or not, it will make you happy or not, angry or otherwise, I’m sorry,” Duterte said, emphasizing that he would insist during his meeting with Xi that whatever minerals are found in the disputed territory, China has to share it with Manila.
“Any other adventures or expeditions in the marine oceans of our exclusive economic zones, will have a direct bearing on that arbitral ruling,” he said.
New diplomatic complaint from Manila
The exploration in the disputed sea was among 29 vaguely worded bilateral deals signed between the Chinese and Philippine governments when Xi visited Manila in November.
Since becoming president, Duterte has avoided issuing statements that would antagonize China, as he moved to distance his government from the United States, the Philippines’ traditional defense ally. But mounting pressure from domestic politicians and nationalist groups during the past two months has put him on the defensive.
On Thursday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin told reporters in Manila that the government had filed a fresh diplomatic protest against China over the multiple passage of Chinese warships in southern Philippine waters since June.
“I already described my foreign policy as the fist and the iron glove of the armed forces, so we work hand-in-hand with the military,” he said.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the U.S. State Department said Washington was deeply concerned about China’s series of “aggressive steps” in recent weeks, including Beijing’s alleged interference with Hanoi’s oil and gas activities in Vietnam’s EEZ.
The State Department cited China’s redeployment of a government-owned survey vessel, together with armed escorts, into waters offshore Vietnam near Vanguard Bank on Aug. 13 as an “escalation by Beijing in its efforts to intimidate other claimants out of developing resources in the South China Sea.”
“China’s actions undermine regional peace and security, impose economic costs on Southeast Asian states by blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
Such moves demonstrate Beijing’s “disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs, under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which China ratified in 1996,” she said.
Duterte’s speech came a day after President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, accused China of “bullying tactics” in the sea region.
“China’s recent escalation of efforts to intimidate others out of developing resources in the South China Sea is disturbing,” Bolton posted on his Twitter page on Tuesday.
“The United States stands firmly with those who oppose coercive behavior and bullying tactics which threaten regional peace and security," he said.