PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday said he would not stop China from building structures at the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, arguing that the country could not afford to go to war with its powerful neighbor.
Duterte made the remarks before leaving for a state visit to Myanmar, following reports that Beijing was planning to build an environmental monitoring station in Panatag Shoal, a traditional fishing ground that it seized in 2012.
“We cannot stop China from doing this thing. The Americans cannot even stop them from doing so. My point to China is, do not do anything to my coast guard if they go there. Because they claim to own it, I claim it to be mine. In the meantime, just keep it open and don’t touch my coast guard,” Duterte told reporters at the Davao International Airport.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t, we will all lose our military and policemen tomorrow. We are a destroyed nation. We cannot even assert a single sentence of the provision that we signed,” he added.
It wasn’t clear what provision the President was referring to. Duterte said he had told Chinese President Xi Jinping that he won’t insist on the July 2016 ruling of the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that junked China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
The arbitration tribunal declared that Filipino fishermen enjoy fishing rights at Panatag Shoal and that the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands, as well as Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank, are all within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. China refuses to recognize the ruling.
“As I have said, I will not invoke the ruling for now, but there will be a time in my term [when I am going to invoke it],” Duterte said.
He also brushed aside concerns over Chinese survey ships that had been seen near Benham Rise – waters east of Luzon island recognized by the United Nation as part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf, where the country can exercise exclusive rights to explore and exploit natural resources.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was very concerned that the ships had been seen at Benham Rise, sometimes for as long as a month.
But Duterte said: “So what if they stop there? They admit it is within the territory of the Philippines. That does not satisfy you?”
He described the complaints against China as “nit-picking.”
The Philippines under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino 3rd had actively challenged China’s claim to control most of the South China Sea, despite counter-claims by several other nations.
However Duterte, who took office last year, has reversed that policy and is seeking billions of dollars worth of investments and grants from Beijing.
“We are now improving the economy because of the help of China. Why will you be so shameless just because they are passing by?” he told reporters.
Beijing has already reclaimed large areas around several islets and reefs in the Spratly archipelago elsewhere in the South China Sea, and installed military facilities on some of them.
However, analysts warn that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230 kilometers (143 miles) from Luzon.
Outposts on the shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines, some of which could host US troops.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries’ navies from using the waters.