MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday warned against infuriating China, which he said was already “in possession” of South China Sea, as any “friction” in the disputed sea might erupt into a conflict that will affect peace and stability in the region.
Speaking to reporters in Singapore, Duterte said China was already a force to be reckon with in the region and the United States and other countries must avoid “creating friction” with the Asian power.
“So if you just keep on creating friction, little friction, one day a bad miscalculation could turn things --- Murphy’s Law. If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong,” Duterte said.
Duterte also rejected holding military drills in the disputed sea, even though the Philippines had already participated in a military drill between China and Southeast Asian nations in late October.
“China is already in possession. It’s now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions… military activity that will prompt a response from China?” he said.
“I do not mind everybody going to war, except that the Philippines is just beside those islands. And if there’s a shooting there, my country will be the first to suffer. That’s my only in --- that is my only national interest there. Nothing else.”
The United States stepped up its challenge to China’s growing dominance in the vital sea lane by sending ships and aircraft conducting freedom of navigation and overflight operations.
China, which has built islands in the disputed sea, has lashed out at the US for what it believes is an encroachment of its territory.
Duterte has opted to downplay the Philippines’ maritime dispute with China in pursuit of improved economic ties with the world’s second-largest economy.
The President, nonetheless, said despite his government’s rapprochement with China, he will never surrender the country’s claims to the sea and will bring up at the appropriate time Manila’s arbitration victory against Beijing.
Duterte said the Philippines, which currently serves as the country coordinator for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - China Dialogue Relations, will work on expediting the negotiations for the code that will govern the behavior of sea claimants.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang earlier said China seeks to conclude negotiations for the code of conduct in three years.
“I will try my best. I made a very strong statement yesterday about the urgent need for a COC so that everybody will know. Because when you claim an ocean, the whole of it, then that is a new development in today’s world,” Duterte said.