MANILA, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned Beijing to retreat from a disputed island in the South China Sea, warning of possible military action if China “touched” it.
Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from the Asian superpower, retained his first criticism of Beijing’s expansive demands at sea – a sensitive spot for the region as trillions of dollars of goods pass through local waters.
But as the Philippine military warned this week that hundreds of Chinese coastguard and fishing vessels “invaded” the island of Pag-asa, also known as Thitu in Manila, the Philippine president spoke on Thursday.
“I will not ask or beg, but I’m just saying leave Pag-asa because I have soldiers there,” Duterte said in a speech. “If you touch her, that’s another story. Then I’ll tell my soldiers to prepare for suicide missions.”
Duterte has repeatedly said that the war with China would be futile and that the Philippines would lose and suffer much in the process.
His words came after his Foreign Office issued a statement calling the Chinese ships’ presence an “illegal” violation of Philippine sovereignty.
China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam claimed several islands and reefs, as well as sea water courses with oil reserves rich in deep water.
In a major victory for Manila, an international maritime court ruled early in the presidency of Duterte in 2016 that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis.
China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea prompted the US to discuss the possibility of relocating US forces and opening bases in the region, US Fleet Commander Admiral Philip Davidson said back in February.
He noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping did not fulfill a 2015 promise not to militarize the South China Sea, taken during a White House ceremony with former US President Barack Obama.
Since then, Beijing has installed anti-gravity cruise missiles, ground-to-air missiles and electronic chokes on a series of islands, some artificially created, in the South China Sea, Davidson said.
The US often sends warships through this sea route, sometimes together with allied nations, something that Washington calls “freedom of navigation” exercises.