BEIJING: China on Monday sidestepped claims by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that it had threatened to go to war over the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Duterte, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing last week, said Friday the leaders had raised conflict as an option to resolving their competing claims to the waters.
“I really said it to their face. That is ours and we intend to drill oil there,” said Duterte, who claimed he made the comments public in response to domestic criticism he was being too weak with China over the row.
“And they told me: ‘Well, we’re friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue we’ll go to war.’”
China’s government on Monday did not directly comment on Duterte’s version of the leaders’ conversation, but said it would “work with the Philippines to peacefully resolve disputes through friendly consultation.”
China sought to “deepen cooperation in other fields so bilateral relations can move forward in a sound steady way and also contribute to regional peace stability,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters.
Cayetano downplays ‘threat’
Amid calls in the Philippine Senate to take China to task for making a war threat, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano downplayed the supposed threat.
He said this was not an act of bullying on Beijing’s part, but was stated in the context of avoiding conflict following a frank discussion in an environment of mutual respect.
“I am not authorized to tell you the exact conversation between President Duterte and President Xi Jinping. But one thing I could assure their conversation was frank, with mutual respect and trust, and that was the context. …of how to establish peace in the region and prevent conflict,” Cayetano told reporters.
The rival claims to the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits, have for decades made it one of Asia’s potential military flashpoints.
China claims most of the sea, a key waterway for global shipping, and has reclaimed disputed reefs and installed military facilities on them.
Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.
An international tribunal ruled in July last year that China’s claims to most of the sea were without legal basis, in a case filed by the Philippines under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino 3rd.
But China vowed to ignore the ruling and warned the Philippines against trying to use the verdict as leverage.
Duterte, who began his six-year term in June last year, agreed to take a soft stance with China.
Duterte has also sought closer ties with Beijing to win billions of dollars of Chinese investments and loans, while loosening the Philippines’ long-standing alliance with the United States.
PH should stand up to China – senators
Some senators on Monday insisted that the government should not take the supposed war threat of China’s Xi lightly, and must show Beijing that country will not allow to be bullied.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the Chinese leader’s threat, if true, is a gross violation of the United Nations (UN) charter.
Drilon cited Article 2, Section 4 of the UN Charter that states “all members shall refrain in their institutional relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity of any State, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purpose of the United Nations.”
“The Philippine government should immediately elevate the threat that the Chinese President allegedly issued against the Philippines over the West Philippines Sea to the United Nations,” the minority leader added.
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio earlier urged the government to file another case against Beijing before a UN tribunal for threatening war.
But the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has chosen to explore peaceful mechanisms available first before considering running to the UN.
DFA spokesman Robespierre Bolivar cited the finalization of the draft framework of the Code of Conduct between the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) and China and the start of the Philippines-China bilateral consultation meeting as among the avenues the Philippines could take in resolving the dispute.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson said the supposed mention of war by the Chinese president, whether indirect or not, is considered a threat and the Philippines should bring it up to the attention of the UN.
“Friendship should be based on goodwill. But where can you find goodwill if there is threat of going to war in case the Philippines pursues its right to explore based on what we believe is ours?” Lacson said.
AFP AND JAIME R. PILAPIL