MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte was only joking when he said that the Philippines could be considered a province of China, his spokesman said Tuesday.
Duterte made the remarks late Monday in front of Chinese businessmen and Beijing's top envoy to Manila to show that the Philippines was "one with China," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque Jr. said.
Roque said Duterte reiterated the Philippines' rights over the South China Sea and Benham Rise earlier in the same speech.
"So iyong biro niya is, you know, it’s just to emphasize na its ours but we’re one with China. Take it in that spirit," the spokesman said.
(His joke was, you know, it;s just to emphasize that its ours but we're one with China. Take it in that spirit.)
"But he was very firm that we have title over the disputed area in West Philippine Sea, and we have rights in Benham – exclusive rights in Philippine Rise," he said.
Manila and Beijing are locked in disputes over features in the South China Sea, along with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
The Philippines won an international arbitration case against China in mid-2016 shortly after Duterte took office. His predecessor, former President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, initiated the case.
Duterte refused to flaunt the legal victory and instead pursued closer trade and diplomatic ties with Beijing.
The Philippines and China have for decades been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the South China Sea. It reached a critical point during the presidency of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who led the filing of case against Beijing before a United Nations-backed tribunal.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Manila in 2016, declaring China’s expansive nine-dash line claim to the sea invalid.
Duterte, however, sought to improve frosty ties with China when he became president, much to the dismay of his critics.