MANILA, Philippines — Addressing concerns over the presence of Chinese ships in the vicinity of Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte said the vessels are not directed at the country.
He added the Philippines will not allow China to occupy the island, which is part of Palawan.
The military earlier confirmed that hundreds of Chinese vessels, believed to be part of Beijing’s maritime militia, have been swarming in the area of Pag-asa Island since January.
Beijing appears to have deployed the ships while Manila’s rehabilitation efforts on a dilapidated runway on the island is ongoing.
‘For them, it’s theirs’
Acknowledging the dispute in the contested waters, Duterte stressed that the Chinese have never harmed any Filipino.
“Because they have gobbled up the whole of (South) China Sea, for them, it is theirs. They felt free to roam around but they never harmed or arrested any Filipino. I am sure it has something to do with the greater game of geopolitics,” Duterte said in an ambush interview Thursday night.
“We say it’s 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 China Sea,” he also said.
Beijing claims sovereignty over a large part of the South China Sea, part of which is the West Philippine Sea, through its historic nine-dash line claim over the waterway. China continues to ignore the July 2016 arbitral ruling that invalidated its historic claims.
“[T]he Pag-asa Island belongs to us, is that yung base natin? China would never do that, I assure you. Unless China wants a war with us, e di ako papayag kung pati yung Pag-asa i-occupy nila? No, of course not,” the president also said.
(I will not allow that they will occupy even Pag-asa)
The mayor of Kalayaan municipality in Palawan, which has jurisdiction over Pag-asa Island, earlier said that the presence of Chinese vessels near the island have been affecting fishing activities of local fishermen in the area.
The Chinese have reportedly been warding off Filipino fishermen from getting to the sandbars near the island. The Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command, however, insisted that there have been no reports of Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen.
The president again stressed that the Philippines cannot go to war with China—critics of government policy on the West Philippine Sea have repeatedly said there are options other than war—and must compromise for now.
“We go into a compromise for the time being, kasi hindi nga, 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,” he said.
Government to act if Filipinos ‘killed or arrested’
The president stressed that the Philippine government will act when the Chinese “kill or arrest” Filipinos in the area.
This statement from Duterte comes after the Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement declaring that the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea is illegal.
The DFA stressed that it is a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction as stated under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“Such actions when not repudiated by the Chinese government are deemed to have been adopted by it,” said.
The Philippine government has aways been manifesting its objections or concerns over illegal activities in the area through diplomatic actiosn, the agency added.
When asked if the Philippines asked China to pull out their ships referred to as “swarming” tactics, the DFA refused to comment.