MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday said he may visit a Japanese warship touring the disputed South China Sea, dismissing the possibility of earning the ire of China.
Citing three sources, Reuters reported on Monday that Japan plans to dispatch its largest warship on a three-month tour through the South China Sea beginning in May, in its biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.
The Izumo helicopter carrier, commissioned only two years ago, will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July.
Japan wants to invite Duterte, who has pushed ties with China in recent months as he has criticized the old alliance with the United States, to visit the Izumo when it visits Subic Bay, another of the sources said.
Duterte said he would visit the warship “if I have the time.”
A visit by Duterte to the warship would likely trigger the ire of China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea.
The tough-talking Filipino leader, however, downplayed this scenario, saying the Japanese warship would only exercise its freedom to navigate in international waters.
“China knows that’s international waters," Duterte said.
A Duterte visit on the Japanese warship would be considered another demonstration of his warmth towards Japan. This is in stark contrast to his treatment of the United States, which under former President Barack Obama, criticized his war on drugs.
Earlier this month, three of Duterte’s Cabinet members visited a U.S. aircraft carrier patrolling the disputed sea.
Japan has no claim in the South China Sea and has a separate maritime dispute with China in the East China Sea. However, Japan’s economy relies heavily on the unimpeded access in the South China Sea and has regarded the growing Chinese military presence in the disputed waters as a source of concern.
Japan's flag-flying operation comes as the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be taking a tougher line with China. Washington has criticized China's construction of man-made islands and a build-up of military facilities that it worries could be used to restrict free movement.
Beijing in January said it had "irrefutable" sovereignty over the disputed islands after the White House vowed to defend "international territories".
The 249 meter-long (816.93 ft) Izumo is as large as Japan's World War 2-era carriers and can operate up to nine helicopters. It resembles the amphibious assault carriers used by U.S. Marines, but lacks their well deck for launching landing craft and other vessels.
Japan in recent years, particularly under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has been stretching the limits of its post-war, pacifist constitution. It has designated the Izumo as a destroyer because its constitution forbids the acquisition of offensive weapons. The vessel, nonetheless, allows Japan to project military power well beyond its territory.
Based in Yokosuka, near to Tokyo, which is also home to the U.S. Seventh Fleet's carrier, the Ronald Reagan, the Izumo's primary mission is anti-submarine warfare.
Duterte also downplayed the presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise east of Luzon.
Benham Rise was declared part of the Philippine territory in 2012 by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier raised alarm over the presence of a survey ship in Benham Rise, prompting Manila to seek clarification from Beijing.
The Chinese foreign ministry confirmed Chinese vessels for “marine research” passed through Benham Rise, but insisted this was only in exercise of the principle of “freedom of navigation” and “right to innocent passage.”
Lorenzana however raised doubts about Beijing’s explanation on the matter, noting that the Chinese ships staying in Benham Rise for months was no longer an exercise of freedom of navigation.
Duterte, for his part, refused to make a big deal out of the issue.
“There’s no incursion, because may agreement kami (because we have an agreement). I even invited them to the shores of the Philippines for a visit. Napalaki lang iyan (The issue just got blown out of proportion),” Duterte said, without elaborating.
In choosing not to call out China over the presence of the Chinese ships in Benham Rise, Duterte pointed out that “things are getting great our way, so why spoil it?”
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has chosen to repair the Philippines’ ties with China which have been strained by the bitter South China Sea dispute.
Choosing different approach, Duterte has chosen to set aside a tribunal ruling on the South China Sea favoring the Philippines. China, in exchange, granted the Philippines with billions of dollars worth of investment pledges. - with Reuters