MANILA (UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte promised Filipinos Monday that the government would stand up for the Philippines’ rights in the West Philippine Sea in “due time,” as his dealings with Beijing came under close scrutiny in light of rising maritime tensions.
The President has come under fire over a verbal agreement with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on fishing in disputed waters just weeks after a Chinese ship hit and sank a Filipino fishing boat in the area, which he called a simple maritime incident.
"The West Philippine Sea is ours, no ifs and buts...We have to temper it with the times and the realities we face today," Duterte said in his fourth State of the Nation Address.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety. China has continued island-building and militarization efforts in the area.
“I am not ready or inclined to accept the occurrence of more destruction, more widows or more orphans, should war, even on a limited scale, break out."
“Short of expressly advocating a call to arms, there are those who stand up and stop those who fish in our economic zone. Of course, we will do that, in due time,” he said.
Duterte said he prefers to handle Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing in a “peaceful way,” insisting a “delicate balancing act.”
“The avoidance of armed conflict and protection of our territorial waters and natural resources compel us to perform a delicate balancing act. A shooting war is grief and misery multiplied. War leaves widows and orphans in its wake,” he said.
IN DUE TIME?
Speaking to reporters after his annual address, Duterte said he would assert Manila’s rights in the West Philippine Sea once its’ oil exploration with China begins.
“Naghihintay ako (I’m waiting) when they start to dig the oil. Mahirap 'yan eh (That’s difficult), we are [a] claimant they are a claimant, so we’ll have to say ‘look do not forget me’ and I would insist that as an owner, though conflicting with your plan, we also must have a share of the resources,” he told reporters after his SONA.
Asked for a timetable, Duterte said it may be during his last year as President or in 2022.
“During my term, last ko na lang 'yan (that’s my last) but maybe on the second or first term of my last year, God willing if I’m still alive,” he said.
Duterte previously said that his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping once warned him against drilling for oil in Manila's waters.
Duterte addressed a joint session of Congress with his popularity at a record high. Victory by his allies in the midterm polls also gave him leverage to push for key legislation in his last 3 years in office.
Nearly 90 percent of Filipinos believe the government should assert its claims in the South China Sea and arrest Chinese fishermen destroying marine life in the area, according to a June 22 to 26 Social Weather Stations poll.
The President earlier fumed over criticism that he could be ousted for allowing China into disputed waters.
“China also claims the property and he is in possession. 'Yan ang problema (That is the problem). Sila ang (They are) in possession and are claiming na sila ang owner (that they are the owner),” he said.
Duterte was also criticized for his comments on the allision between a Filipino fishing boat and Chinese ship which he called a “maritime incident.” Twenty-two Filipino fishermen were left at sea by the Chinese crew in the June 9 incident. They were later rescued by a Vietnamese boat.
Since assuming the presidency in 2016, Duterte has refused to invoke the Philippines' victory against China in a United Nations-backed arbitration court which was initiated by his predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino III.