MANILA — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte admitted on Sunday (March 20) his militarily inferior country cannot stop China’s actions in contested waters, following reports that Beijing planned to construct an environmental monitoring station in a disputed shoal off the South-east Asian country’s north-west coast.
“We cannot stop China from doing (these) things. Even the Americans were not able to stop them,” Mr Duterte told journalists when asked about the reports before departing for a visit to Myanmar and Thailand.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation.”
Last week, Mr Xiao Jie, the mayor of what China calls Sansha City, said China planned to begin preparatory work this year to build environmental monitoring stations on a number of islands, including Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
Sansha City is the name China has given to an administrative base for the South China Sea islands and reefs that it controls.
The monitoring stations, along with docks and other infrastructure, form part of island restoration and erosion prevention efforts planned for this year, Mr Xiao told the official Hainan Daily in an interview. He had also said the works were among the government’s top priorities this year.
Mr Duterte, however, warned on Sunday that he would invoke a July 12 arbitration ruling that invalidated China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea if the Chinese “start to tinker with the entitlement”, apparently meaning when Beijing starts to tap the offshore area’s resources.
“Just keep it (the waters) open and do not interfere with our coast guard,” he said.
Last July, the Hague delivered a harsh rebuke to China for its activities in the South China Sea, including the construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago.
The tribunal also said no one country had sovereign rights to the Scarborough Shoal.
Beijing lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$7 million) worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also claim parts of the waters that have rich fishing grounds, along with oil and gas deposits.
Mr Duterte on Sunday also brushed aside concerns over Chinese survey ships that had been seen near Benham Rise — waters east of the main Philippine island of Luzon that have been recognised by the United Nations as indisputably Philippine territory.
Earlier this month, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he was very concerned that the ships had been seen at that location, sometimes for as long as a month.
But Mr 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 “nitpicking”.
The Philippines under Mr Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino had actively challenged China’s claim to the South China Sea.
However Mr Duterte, who took office last year, has reversed that policy and is seeking billions of dollars worth of investments and grants from Beijing, as he pivoted away from long-time ally, Washington.
“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 asked.
Analysts had warned that building on Scarborough Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230km 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 American troops.
The shoal also commands the north-east exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries’ navies from using the waters. AGENCIES