Duterte says loves China but asks: 'Is it right for a country to claim whole ocean?'

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 31 2019 06:40 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before the start of their bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, April 25, 2019. King Rodriguez, Malacañang Photo/File

MANILA - "Is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?"

President Rodrigo Duterte raised this question during his keynote address at a business forum in Tokyo, Japan as he discussed Manila's maritime dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

"I love China, it has helped us a bit. But it behooves upon us to ask, is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?" he said, deviating from his prepared speech for the 25th International Conference on the Future of Asia. 

The Philippines has long been involved in a maritime dispute with China, which claims nearly all of the South China Sea. 

Beijing has refused to recognize a United Nations-backed arbitral ruling invalidating its sweeping claims into the vital waterway and has instead ramped up its militarization efforts in the area, encroaching into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Duterte explained that while many "lousy" politicians in the Philippines are prodding him to raise Manila's victory, he cannot do so because Manila cannot afford to go to war.

"My country is very small, it has progressed little over the years, I do not know why but I cannot afford war with anybody, not only with China," he said.

"We need to buy [weapons] but there are some priorities like food, education, hospitalization. There's never enough so I cannot go on some sort of adventure to fight not my war but what the claimant precipitated by a geographic tension," he said.

Duterte has faced criticism for setting aside Manila's July 2016 arbitral victory in exchange for closer ties with Asia's largest economy.

Aside from the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan have partial claims to the resource-rich South China Sea and its myriad shoals, reefs and islands.

Duterte lamented the absence of a code of conduct in the disputed waters and expressed hopes that China would take the lead in formulating one.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been negotiating with China for the crafting of a binding code of conduct to govern the waters, where tensions have periodically erupted. 

"I am sad and bewildered, not angry because I cannot do anything. But I just hope that China would come up with a conduct of the seas soon and somebody should reach out to the US because if you leave it to them to talk nothing will happen," Duterte said.

The United States, while not a party to the maritime dispute, has been calling for restraint and freedom of navigation in the waterway, a vital international trade route. 

"Before anything else it would do us well maybe on a higher ministerial level to talk about this and try to prod China to come out also," he said.

The Philippines and China earlier vowed to address the dispute through bilateral talks.