Duterte ‘reluctant’ to confront China over South China Sea row

Philippine president says Manila owes Beijing a ‘debt of gratitude’ but insists he will not compromise country’s sovereignty.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (centre) listens to Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin (right) as they welcome China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) during a courtesy call at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila last January [File: Richard Madelo/Handout Photo via AFP]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he will not withdraw navy and coastguard boats patrolling the disputed South China Sea, insisting the country’s sovereignty over the waters is not negotiable. At the same time, he added that he wants to maintain friendly ties with China, citing Manila’s “debt of gratitude” for Beijing’s help with the coronavirus vaccine.

Tensions over the regional sea, which China claims almost entirely, have spiked as Beijing refuses to withdraw its vessels from the Philippines’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and as Manila steps up maritime patrols.

Duterte is under growing domestic pressure to take a harder line but has been reluctant to confront China over the issue as he tries to foster closer ties with the economic giant.

He said late on Wednesday that while the Philippines is indebted to its “good friend” China for many things, including free COVID-19 vaccines, his country’s claims to the waterway “cannot be bargainable”.

“I’ll tell China, we do not want trouble, we do not want war. But if you tell us to leave – no,” Duterte said.

“There are things which are not really subject to a compromise, such as us pulling back. It’s difficult. I hope they understand, but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”

Duterte’s apparent attempt to hedge the issue has drawn the ire of Filipinos on social media with many condemning the president as a “traitor” for not taking a firmer stand on the South China Sea dispute.

In a statement on Thursday, retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who argued the Philippines’ case on the South China Sea before the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague, also criticised Duterte.

“Filipinos deserve, and should demand, a president who loves Filipinos first and foremost who will uncompromisingly defend Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Naval drills

Duterte’s remarks came after the country’s defence department said China had “no business telling the Philippines what we can and cannot do with our own waters”.

The Philippine coastguard is conducting drills near Thitu Island and Scarborough Shoal, as well as the Batanes islands in the north and the southern and eastern parts of the country.

Scarborough – one of the region’s richest fishing grounds – has long been a flashpoint between Manila and Beijing.

In response to the exercises, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that the Philippines should “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”. Other littoral states, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei, claim parts of the South China Sea. Taiwan also has a claim.

In recent weeks, Manila has boosted “sovereignty patrols” involving the navy coastguard and fisheries in the Spratly Islands – an archipelago contested by several countries.

The Philippines has also carried recently a joint military exercise with the United States.

Beijing has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the South China Sea to be without basis.

Once-frosty ties between Manila and Beijing have warmed under Duterte, who set aside the ruling in exchange for promises of trade and investment – which critics say have not materialised.

Delays in COVID-19 vaccine deliveries has left the Philippines heavily reliant on the jab developed by China’s Sinovac.

About 3.5 million doses have been sent to the Southeast Asian country so far, including one million donated doses.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies