The Philippines appears to be bowing out of the fight for its place in the South China Sea.
There is nothing the Philippines can do to stop China from building on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, for any assertive course of action would risk war with a superpower, the president of the island nation said Sunday.
“We cannot stop China from doing its thing,” President Rodrigo Duterte admitted, before departing on a trip to Myanmar.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war on China?” he asked. “I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we will be a destroyed nation.”
China seized Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines calls Panatag Shoal, by force in 2012. The next year, the Philippines unilaterally submitted the territorial dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Last year, the international arbitration tribunal ruled in the Philippines favor, discrediting China’s vast claims to the waters and territories of South China Sea. China rejected the authority of the tribunal and the ruling.
The mayor of Sansha, an administrative base for China’s South China Sea activities masquerading as a city, announced earlier this week China will build an “environmental monitoring station” on Scarborough Shoal.
Referring to the arbitration ruling, Duterte said, “We cannot assert even a single sentence of any provision that we signed.” The Philippine president said that “there will be a time in my term when I will bring the issue back on the table,” but he will “not invoke” the arbitration ruling in any upcoming negotiations with China.
Due to the president’s rocky relationship with the Obama administration, Duterte turned to America’s rivals, China and Russia, for assistance. The Philippines is in the process of strengthening economic ties with China, a critical process Duterte believes could be derailed by the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
In his speech Sunday, Duterte acknowledged China’s right to send ships into Philippine waters.
“You have the right to pass through, anybody can. The Americans come through daily. Why discriminate against China? We are not at war with China, and I am at not war with America. The American ships come and go … China is also our friend,” he explained. “Now, we are now improving on the economy because of the help of China. Why should we not let them pass?”
He only asked China not to harass his coast guard. “Just keep the waters open and do not interfere with our coast guard.”
Duterte’s statements come just two days after Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana called for the strengthening of the Philippines’ military facilities in the Spratly Islands, where China has been aggressively establishing fortified outposts.
Over the years, the U.S. has invested significant military and political capital to defend its long-time ally against encroachments by China, yet Duterte has downplayed its relationship with Washington, D.C., to pursue better ties with Beijing and Moscow.
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