Duterte insists force needed to regain control over West Philippine Sea
MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is not in complete possession of the West Philippine Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte admitted on Monday, saying that the only way to recover it would be to use force.
Duterte finally spoke about the issue in his pre-recorded briefing weeks after the Philippine Coast Guard reported the presence of Chinese Maritime Militia around Julian Felipe Reef, which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“I asked [Defense] Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana: Can we go there? Can we send our ships to the Spratly Islands? Of course, it should be the Coast Guard. We do not send gray ships, or warships, there,” Duterte said, speaking partly in Filipino.
“It’s to show Filipinos that, no matter how many times we return there, nothing happens because we are not in the possession of the sea. They have it,” he said.
Duterte, who has been criticized repeatedly for being too friendly with China, had always stressed that he would not be willing to engage in a war that would be costly for the country.
“But you know the issue of the West Philippine Sea remains to be a question forever — until such time that you know, we can take it back. For me, there’s no other way but war,” he said.
“If we promote a war against China, and America [invovled], maybe it would be quick. But at what cost to us? And that’s the problem. But we can retake [the sea] only by force,” he added.
During Duterte’s discussion of the issue, Lorenzana provided inputs about the area — which is part of the country’s continental shelf. According to Lorenzana, Philippine ships were able to sail in the area peacefully.
“Mr. President, there’s no obstacle to going there. Even our Navy ships keep going to Pag-asa Island and patrolling the area,” Lorenzana said.
In response, Duterte said that nothing would happen even if they would personally check the area under dispute because as far as the Chinese were concerned it belonged to them.
“Even if I go there, I said, with Secretary Lorenzana, and sail there, and ask questions, nothing will happen. They will just answer you,” he said.
The latest issue between Manila and Beijing started last March 21, when the Philippine Coast Guard and the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) made a report about 220 Chinese ships spotted in line formation near the Julian Felipe Reef.
The Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic protest and Lorenzana released strongly-worded statements when the Chinese ships remained in the area despite the repeated demands by the Philippine government to leave.
Previously, Lorenzana said that Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian had “a lot of explaining to do” with the ships still present at the reef.
Despite the warnings and the protest, NTF-WPS said last April 13 that Chinese Maritime Militia ships — and not fishing vessels as previously claimed by Chinese authorities — were spotted at the Julian Felipe Reef.
Before that, Chinese ships had repeatedly moved into the West Philippine Sea, each time prompting the Philippines a diplomatic protest.
China claims ownership of almost the entire South China Sea, saying that its nine-dash-line territorial claims have a historical basis.
On the other hand, the Philippines won in the ruling released by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 — which invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim.
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