MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday said the Philippines will continue to pursue friendly ties with China despite its continuous building of military facilities in its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
Duterte has been accused of going soft on China despite the latter’s aggressive moves in the disputed waters.
The President, however, defended his stance and said it is useless to raise a howl of China’s activities in the disputed sea. He stressed, China’s move was really aimed at the U.S., its main rival for global dominance.
“China is playing it right at this time. That is the reality of geopolitics. Hindi naman tayo ang kalaban niyan eh. Ang kalaban n'yan ay America,” Duterte said in a news conference in Davao City.
“Huwag tayong makisali dyan. We better solve the fundamental problems of our country, including what is happening to our brother Filipinos.”
Duterte said the Philippines cannot afford to confront China, Asia’s largest economy.
“We are neutral. We will continue to talk with China. This is not the time to be fighting over South China Sea because it will only lead to a war,” he said.
Beijing has almost finished building military installations in the seven reefs claimed by Manila in the Spratly archipelago, according to a Philippine Daily Inquirer report which released close-up images of the artificial islands, in a move described by observers as part of China’s bid to cement its control over the contested waters.
Malacañang has downplayed the release of the photos, hinting Manila was helpless in the face of a superior Chinese military.
“This ‘militarization’, if you can call it militarization, did not happen during the Duterte administration alone. It’s been long militarized,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a news conference earlier this week.
“What can we do? Right now the posture of the President is to maintain close ties [with China] so they won’t have any reason to use those arms in those islands.”
Roque later said in an online interview that the Philippines might even thank China for the man-made islands in the event Beijing loses control over it.
Roque’s comment was derided by critics, but the President defended him.
“Kapag natapos na ‘yan sabihin natin ‘amin man yan. Palagyan mo muna ng building… I-turnover mo muna yung mga hotels dyan, yung mga tapos na dyan. Iyun ang ibig sabihin ni Roque. Malay mo,” he said.
Since assuming power, Duterte has sought to downplay Manila’s South China Sea dispute with Beijing in pursuit of better economic ties with Asia’s largest economy.
China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea where $5 trillion in trade goods pass annually. The area is also believed to contain oil and gas reserves.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea in March.