PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday, April 4, downplayed the reported presence of over 200 Chinese vessels in the vicinity of the Pag-asa Island in the contested South China Sea.
In a chance interview in Palawan, Duterte expressed confidence that China would "never" make any move that would harm the Philippines.
The President, in an attempt to defend Beijing, said deploying Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island could be part of a "greater game of geopolitics" directed at other nations and not at the Philippines.
"The Pag-asa Island belongs to us. Is that yung base natin (Is that our base)? Of course, China would never do that, I assure you, unless China wants a war with us. Eh di ako papayag kung pati yung Pag-asa, i-occupy nila (They would occupy Pag-asa Islan? I won't allow that). No, of course not," Duterte said.
"I said that is part of the conflict, because they have gobbled up the whole of [South] China Sea. Para sa kanila, kanila 'yan (That would benefit them) so they feel free to roam around and to do whatever. But they never harmed or arrested any filipino. I am sure that it has something to do with the greater game of geopolitics. And it is not directed to us," he added.
On April 1, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest challenging the reported presence of at least 275 Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island from January to March 2019.
Panelo said the Chinese ships, considered as part of Chinese maritime militia, were found to be "stationary," staying in the vicinity of the Pag-asa Island between a day and a week.
Earlier Thursday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the presence of over 200 Chinese vessels near the Pag-asa Island is "illegal."
The DFA explained that Pag-asa Island is part of the Kalayaan Islands Group, which is an integral part of the Philippines where it has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
Duterte, who continues to enjoy mended ties with China, said the Philippines could only seek a "compromise," insisting that his administration could not afford to go to war with Beijing.
"Now, kung gusto natin (If we want), we have two option: We drive them away by force, can we do that? Unless we want to commit suicide. If you go to war, the first step of China would be to launch its missile. In seven minutes it would arrive [in] Manila before you can make a fourth of your journey to where you want to go," he said.
"We go into a compromise for the time being, kasi hindi nga (because we could not affor it) if we go to war or there is a violent conflict, we would never win and I would suffer beyond imagination. I would just go there send my soldiers and policemen to be slaughtered. I am not prepared to do that," Duterte reiterated.
China has ramped up the reclamation and militarization of the hotly-contested South China Sea, as it continues to shun the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated its sweeping claims to the disputed waters.
Duterte said he would only be prompted to act on China's aggressive claims to the South China Sea, if Filipinos are "killed or arrested."
"There's a conflicting claim. We said that it is ours because of the economic zone that is given to us. Then they say its part of their territory that's why there is a conlict not only with us but with the peripheral countries around [South] China Sea," Duterte said.
"And I assure you that if they kill or arrest people there who are Filipinos, then that would be the time that we will have to decide on what to do," he added. (SunStar Philippines)