MANILA — After drawing flak over his remark that his campaign promise for fishermen in disputed seas was a joke, President Rodrigo Duterte warned Beijing that he would not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters, even if China killed him.
In a taped meeting that aired on Friday, Defense Secretary Lorenzana told Duterte that the Philippines had 2 ships in the West Philippine Sea, which were roving around Kalayaan islands and Mischief Reef.
"I’d like to put notice sa China. May 2 barko ako d’yan (I have 2 ships there)… I am not ready to withdraw," the President said.
The Philippine ships "will not move an inch backward," he said.
"Hindi talaga ako aatras. Patayin mo man ako kung patayin mo ako, dito ako. Dito magtatapos ang ating pagkakaibigan," Duterte said, addressing China.
(I will not retreat. Kill me if you want to kill me, I will be here. This is where our friendship will end.)
This, two days after a Filipino fisherman in Infanta, Pangasinan took offense at Duterte's recent clarification that his 2016 campaign statement of riding a jet ski and challenging Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea was just a "pure joke."
Beijing refuses to recognize a 2016 arbitral ruling that junked its "historical" claims to about 90 percent of the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
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.
"Ayoko makipag-away sa China, ayoko sa lahat. Inuulit ko, may utang na loob kami. Malaki ang utang na loob," said Duterte.
(I do not want war with China, that's what I don't like the most, I repeat, we have a debt of gratitude. The debt of gratitude is great.)
Manila and Beijing's maritime dispute flared again in March, after some 200 Chinese ships swarmed Philippine waters.
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weeks about a "swarming and threatening presence" of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.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 previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats as it asserts its illegal claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
– With a report from Reuters
Video courtesy of PTV