Any attempt by the Philippines to drive Chinese vessels out of the disputed zone in the South China Sea could spark a potential war and result in the Philippines’ forces being “decimated,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned.
“If I send my marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you, not one of them will come home alive,” Duterte said, speaking to lawmakers in Quezon City on Monday in a state of the nation address, AP has reported.
According to the president, if he sent the Philippine Navy's latest frigate to the disputed area, it would be destroyed by Chinese missiles allegedly stationed nearby, which can also reach Manila. "You want war?” he asked.
Duterte may have been referring to US claims earlier from this month that China tested missiles in the South China Sea. China has denied that any missile testing took place.
“When [Chinese President] Xi says ‘I will fish’, who can prevent him?” Duterte asked, stressing that while “national honour and territorial integrity are at the foremost” on his mind, “we have to temper it with the times and realities we face today.”
Saying he was not prepared to wage a war against China, Duterte promised to fight for Manilla’s sovereignty over the exclusive economic zone in West Philippine Sea in a “peaceful way” in “the privacy of a conference room.”
Over 5,000 protesters gathered outside the venue where Duterte spoke, burning a Chinese flag and a mural of Duterte and the US and Chinese presidents. Last month, the alleged ramming and sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel sparked protests over Duterte’s China policy, with the president calling the event “an ordinary maritime traffic incident.”
Last week, Philippine media reported that the Philippine Coast Guard would soon be patrolling the disputed sea area with a new French-built patrol vessel, with the ship, said to be the “biggest and most modern” patrol vessel in the coast guard’s fleet, to be delivered in December.
Earlier this month, Duterte signalled his readiness to invoke Manila’s Mutual Defence Treaty with Washington, and urged the US to fulfill its obligations and “gather all their Seventh Fleet in front of China,” promising to “join them” if they did so. At the same time, Duterte accused the US of “pushing” and “egging” the Philippines on to take “the bait” in ratcheting up tensions, and warned that “we can never win a war with China.”
Last Thursday, Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, warned that he expects to see China surpass his command’s capabilities “in the next couple years” unless Washington was ready to commit substantially more resources to containing China in the region.
While six nations claim ownership over parts of the South China Sea, China controls the vast majority of the sea area. The US has sought to contest Beijing’s dominance in the region by sending warships on ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols, with China warning that such “provocative” actions threaten to spark a broader conflict.
Along with China and the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, claim sea territories in the South China Sea. Over $5 trillion in maritime cargo passes through the sea zone each year, including much of China’s Middle Eastern oil supplies. The area is also rich with fishing stocks and untapped energy resources.