MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said China must clarify its intentions in the disputed South China Sea, in what could be an indication that the Filipino leader has adopted a stronger stance on Manila’s sea row with Beijing.
Duterte said the Philippines and its fellow members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will have to eventually confront China on the bitter sea dispute, saying Beijing must “make clear to us what China really wants.”
The President said this ahead of two key regional summits of leaders in the Asia-Pacific region, where vital issues such as trade and security will be discussed.
“I suppose that I’d bring [up] the matter (sea dispute) because while we were focused on the dangers of North Korea, regarding its sabre-rattling and lahat doon nakatingin. And I do not take it against China,” Duterte told reporters before leaving for Vietnam to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.
“[China] has claimed every part of it and nobody stopped him. So tanungin ko lang siya, ‘What are the stakes? You want to control the passage or do we have the free passage?’” he added.
China is claiming nearly all of South China Sea, including the Philippines' exclusive economic zone within the waters which Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.
Apart from the Philippines, Taiwan and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam also have partial claims to the resource-rich waters.
China has ramped up militarization and island-building activities in the disputed waters, ignoring a July 2016 United Nations arbitral ruling favoring Manila and invalidating Beijing's sweeping claims to the waters.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has adopted a friendlier stance towards China, downplaying the maritime dispute between Manila and Beijing in pursuit of improved economic ties.
Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing has earned him criticism, particularly from those who haled China to the UN arbitral tribunal.
In defending his move to seek better ties with China, Duterte had previously said Manila could not afford to go to war with military giant Beijing.
In his pre-departure interview, Duterte said while he wanted to confront China over the sea dispute, it is not that easy as there are other claimants to the vital trade route.
“If I engage China now, I will have to engage the …others,” Duterte said, referring to the other sea claimants.
“It would be something like a scramble there because if China concedes to one, Philippines, it has to concede to the others.”
The President added that while he is thankful to China for its assistance to the Philippines, these should not be used as “bargaining chips” to make Manila subservient to Beijing.
“These are the things that we cannot forget. But these things should not be used as, not really a pawn, but as bargaining chips on what is the greater interest of Southeast Asia and more particularly, the higher interest of our country,” he said.
“Iba ‘yung nagpapasalamat ako sa iyo. I do not deny that. But let us be clear on what we intend to do here because, eventually, it will affect the entire Philippine archipelago.”
Duterte, meanwhile, said he might also bring up the sea dispute issue with United States President Donald Trump, who he is also set to meet in Vietnam and, later, in Manila during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit.
But he said his comments would depend on the outcome of talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump is currently in China for a state visit, with trade and the crisis at the Korean Peninsula expected to be on top of the agenda in his meeting with Xi.
“I have to hear them first before I make my response. Because it will be based on the outcome of their talks and the points that would touch the Philippines I said, and I would have to decide what is best for my country alone,” Duterte said.
“And it will be a decision that will promote the higher interest, the greatest interest, as a matter of fact, for my country.”