Duterte again confronts China, stresses he will not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday (May 14) categorically rejected China’s demand that the Philippines withdraw its ships from the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Duterte said he would not bow under pressure even if it jeopardized his friendship with Beijing.

Since early March, hundreds of Chinese vessels have been staying in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, including Whitsun Reef (known as Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines and Bull Yoke Reef in China), which lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.)

The vessels are reportedly carrying armed Chinese militiamen, not “ordinary fishing boats” as described by the Chinese. The Philippines condemned China’s move, saying the vessels, controlled by Chinese militia, were “a blatant violation of Philippine jurisdiction”. The Philippines has since stepped up its presence in its exclusive economic zone. Last month China asked the Philippines to withdraw its vessels from the disputed waters and asked Manila to stop “moves that complicate the situation and exacerbate the dispute.

Duterte rejected the Chinese demand on television Friday. He said, “We have our position and I want to make it clear here…we will definitely not budge an inch.” “I don’t want to quarrel, I don’t want trouble. I respect your position, you have to respect my position. But we’re not going to go to war.” He also said “I will not back down, even if you kill me. This is where our friendship will end.”

Meanwhile, there are growing calls in the Philippines for Duterte to abandon his pursuit of close ties with China and to resist what Philippine defense officials say are China’s hostility and blatant provocations.

For its part, the Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

Duterte has been criticized for his soft stance toward China for refusing to pressure China to comply with a 2016 international arbitration tribunal ruling on sovereignty in the South China Sea that favored the Philippines. Last week Duterte even said the 2016 international arbitration tribunal ruling was nothing more than a piece of paper that he could throw in the wastepaper basket.

In a televised speech Friday, Duterte said he fully believes in the ruling of the international tribunal.

The Philippine presidential election will be held in May next year, and Taiwan’s Central News Agency reports that Duterte’s rivals have harshly criticized him for being too soft on China, forcing Duterte to turn his guns lately.

In addition to the sovereignty dispute between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, claimants also include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. The South China Sea is rich in marine resources and is one of the busiest sea lanes in the world.