MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he would be “frank” with China with regard to the South China Sea dispute when he meets with its leader on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam this week.
Duterte said he is holding on to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s promise not to build an island on Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), which is located some 124 nautical miles off Zambales and is within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
“I’m going to APEC tomorrow and we have the bilaterals… It would be at that time I would be frank with China also,” Duterte said in a speech during the 67th anniversary of the Philippine Marine Corps in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City.
“You will have to trust me na pupunta ako doon but I will assert something and that is our inherent right to one day really put a stake to what we think is ours,” he added.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has adopted a friendlier stance towards China, downplaying the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing in exchange for improved economic ties.
Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing has earned him criticisms, particularly from people who haled China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which eventually ruled to invalidate China’s 9-dash-line claim to the vital maritime route.
In defending his move to seek better ties with Beijing, Duterte said Manila cannot afford to go to war with Beijing, which spends an enormous amount for its military.
Nonetheless, he warned of the possible consequences of a reclamation project on Scarborough Shoal by Beijing.
“I just hope he would honor it because it will change the entire geography of the world,” Duterte said.
“And if war starts, I don’t know what would be the next geographical division of Asia,” he added.
The President also noted the geographical importance of Palawan vis-a-vis a possible armed conflict with China.
“You cannot sink an island… So iyan ang ano natin, it’s really Palawan. It’s a huge battleship facing the entire [South China Sea]. Iyung mga battleships nila are just there and you can sink [them], the other countries can do it,” he said.
“That is the analysis of things which I have to talk to them about, what I feel is developing there,” he added.
Beijing's aggressive campaign of archipelago building in the South China Sea has been a point of contention with neighboring countries that lay claim to parts of its waters.
China claims nearly all of the sea, through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.
Its sweeping claims are in conflict with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan.
China has previously said that it had completed its reclamation projects in an area of the South China Sea known as the Spratlys. – with AFP