MANILA - In front of Philippine Navy officials and personnel, President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he wants to take on a stronger stance in the South China Sea dispute but said this would come at a great cost.
Duterte said he desires to “defend” the Philippines’ claims to the disputed sea, but that he also wants to avoid "any move that would be destructive to the nation.”
“I cannot afford at this time to go to war. I cannot go into a battle which I cannot win and would only result in destruction for our armed forces. I really want to do something to assert [our rights],” Duterte said in his speech during the 120th anniversary of the Philippine Navy at the Coconut Palace in Pasay City.
“In my own estimation, it would be [a] great loss to the nation and probably we will end up losing a war. All of these things, I want to be made known to you. Whether you accept it or not, that’s the reality on the ground,” Duterte said.
The President said this in the wake of recent developments in the South China Sea that have called into question China’s intentions in the busy maritime lane.
China recently deployed bombers in the Paracels, which is also being claimed by Vietnam, and installed missiles in the Philippine-claimed Spratly Islands. Critics have been urging the government to protest China's recent activities, but the administration has preferred to deal with the matter quietly.
In a press conference earlier Tuesday, Duterte's spokesperson Harry Roque said reports on China's continuing fortification of the disputed waters were nothing new.
Since assuming the Presidency, Duterte has chosen to downplay Manila’s South China Sea dispute with Beijing. He has also sought to diminish American influence in the country.
The Philippines and China have for decades been embroiled in a dispute over the South China Sea. It reached a critical point during the presidency of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who approved the filing of a case against Beijing before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Manila in July 2016, declaring China’s expansive nine-dash line claim to the sea invalid. Beijing has ignored the landmark ruling.
The President said he won’t raise Manila’s victory yet, noting the Philippines is benefiting from its friendly ties with China.
He has also said there seems to be no point in questioning Chinese military presence in the sea, blaming instead the Aquino administration and the Americans for preventing Beijing’s advances.