President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday that he would not die from "kunsumisyon" or exasperation over the West Philippine Sea, a flashpoint in relations between Manila and Beijing.
Duterte in a taped speech said he would discuss only 2 things, namely the COVID-19 crisis and the resource-rich waterway, parts of which China claims.
Ang COVID-19, nakakamatay. Ang West Philippine Sea, hindi—maraming mamatay sa kunsumisyon. Pero hindi ako."
(COVID-19 is fatal. The West Philippine Sea is not—many may die out of exasperation. But not me.)
A government task force on the West Philippine Sea reported this week what it said were "incursions" within and outside the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 287 maritime militia vessels from China.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a "swarming and threatening presence" of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.
The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through "sovereignty patrols", in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under pro-China Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.
Experts say China's fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.
A retired Philippine Supreme Court justice had warned that China's swarming of the Julian Felipe Reef (Whitsun Reef) in the Kalayaan Island Group since March could be a prelude to occupation and building of a military base, as Beijing did on Mischief Reef in 1995.
Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats as it asserts its illegal claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines' favor in a dispute with China, was just a "piece of paper" that he could throw in the trash.
The tribunal ruled that China's claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, has no legal basis.
Defense and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte's comments "cancels-out" the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defense chiefs.
"We don't have unity in messaging," Custodio said. "That is encouraging China's actions."
Duterte forged friendlier relations with China upon assuming power in 2016, even setting aside the arbitral award in favor of economic aid and investments from Beijing.
– With a report from Reuters