President Rodrigo Duterte was "clear" when he said he had made no promise to take back Chinese-controlled territory in Philippine waters, Malacañang said on Tuesday.
"Ang mga sinasabi niya, he will ask China to honor sovereignty and our sovereign rights na ginagawa naman po niya," said Palace spokesman Harry Roque.
"Pero, I think the President was clear. Hindi niya ipinangako na mababawi iyong mga teritoryo na nawala na sa atin," he said in a press briefing.
(What he said where, he would ask China to honor sovereignty and our sovereign rights, which he has been doing. But I think the President was clear, he did not promise to take back the territories that we lost.)
Duterte on Monday said he "never, never, in my campaign as President, promise the people that I would re-take the West Philippine Sea."
His remark followed Manila's protests against over 200 Chinese ships in the waterway.
The previous administration of President Benigno Aquino Jr. initiated in 2013 an arbitral complaint against China after the latter took effective control of the Scarborough Shoal off Luzon island. In 2016, a United Nations-backed court junked Beijing's claims to 90 percent of the South China Sea, within which is the smaller West Philippine Sea.
In a pre-election debate in 2016, Duterte said he would not wage war against China if it refused to obey the ruling.
However, he said he would ask the Philippine Navy to bring him to the boundary of the Spratlys in the West Philippine Sea so he can "ride a jet ski while bringing the Philippine flag."
He said he would go to the airport built by China on reclaimed land and plant the Philippine flag there.
"This is ours. Do what you want with me," he would tell Beijing, he said. "Matagal ko nang ambisyon na maging hero ako. Kung pinatay nila ako dun, bahala na kayo umiyak dito sa Pilipinas."
(It has long been my ambition to be a hero. If they kill me there, cry for me here in the Philippines.)
Roque said, "Even the jet ski, ang sabi lang naman niya, sasabihan niya ang China na umalis ‘no, pero hindi niya ipinangako na iyong nawalang Scarborough Shoal eh mapapaalis niya ang mga Tsino roon."
(Even with the jet ski remark, he just said that he would tell China to leave, but he did not promise that the he could drive away the Chinese in the Scarborough Shoal.)
In 2017, Duterte said he will no longer plant the Philippine flag in Kalayaan town in the disputed Spratlys archipelago because China won't like it.
"I would like to correct myself along the way dito. I said I will go to the island of Kalayaan, Pag-asa on June 12 to raise the Filipino flag there," Duterte said in a meeting then with the Filipino community in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was on a two-day state visit.
"If every heads of state of the contending parties around the West Philippine Sea will go there to plant their flags, there will likely be trouble. Because of our friendship with China, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," Duterte said.
The Philippine flag had long been hoisted on Pag-asa Island after Filipinos occupied it a few decades back. The island is the seat of Palawan's Kalayaan municipality, created through a Presidential Proclamation in 1978.
Former and some current officials, as well as some analysts, have been challenging Duterte to take a bolder move against China's incursions in the West Philippine Sea and take actions to enforce the arbitral award.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario said that whether or not Duterte promised to retake the West Philippine Sea and pressure China, "it is the duty of the President under the Constitution to protect what is ours."