PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Monday suggested in jest that China make the Philippines a province as he defended China’s construction of military structures on the contested Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) Reef in the South China Sea.
In a speech during the 20th anniversary celebration of the Chinese Filipino Business Club, the President said the government is exerting more serious efforts to resolve the territorial issues in the South China Sea.
In front of the Chinese businessmen, Duterte said the China could just make the Philippines a province, like Fujian.
He admitted that China is building military bases in the West Philippine Sea but said it would be silly for anyone to think China will use such military assets against the Philippines.
“It’s not intended for us. The contending ideological powers of the world or the geopolitics have greatly changed. It’s really intended against those who the Chinese think would destroy them and that is America,” he said.
Duterte also brushed aside the move of China to name undersea features in Philippine Rise.
“If they say there is a lot of oil there, fine...Remember, that is ours. The whole of the China Sea, you have already claimed it…but this Philippine Rise is ours,” said Duterte.
He said any future scientific research conducted by foreign entities in the Philippine Rise will have to be cleared by the military first.
The Navy, meanwhile, has deployed a ship and two attack craft in the waters fronting the West Philippine Sea to ensure the country’s territorial integrity.
Lt. Sahirul Taib, public affairs officer of the Navy’s fleet based in Sangley Point in Cavite City, said that among the ships sent to Palawan waters were the BRP Nestor Reinoso and two newly-acquired multi-purpose attack craft (MPAC).
Taib said the three ships were part of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Force that sailed Feb. 15 from Naval Base Heracleo Alano, Sangley Point to the West Philippine Sea.
Rear Admiral Gaudencio Collado Jr., commander of the Philippine Fleet, said the gesture of sending a navy vessel and two attack craft to Palawan was aimed at preserving peace and tranquility in the area.
The navy’s BRP Nestor Reinoso’s would be conducting patrol at the periphery of the Malampaya gas field, some 80 kilometers off Palawan, serving as deterrent to possible harassment from terrorists, he said.
The two MPAC’s are capable of maneuvering at high speeds and would soon be fitted with short-range missiles.
Lt. Junior Grade Maivi Neri, spokesperson of Naval Forces West based in Palawan, said the three Navy assets would be under the operational control of the Joint Task Force-Malampaya of the Western Command.
Neri said that aside from patrolling the Malampaya gas platform, the Navy ships would be sailing to nearby islands to support rescue operations and transport relief goods during extreme weather in Palawan.
On Friday, the Northern Luzon Command deployed hundreds of battle-tested Marines in the northern frontier in Cagayan province to support the Navy’s external security operations, particularly in Philippine Rise.
Aside from guarding Philippine Rise from intrusion of foreign forces, the Marine contingent is ready to assist in the conduct of patrol in the eastern and western seaboard of Philippine waters.
The Marines were deployed after China renamed five undersea features of the Philippine Rise.
Earlier, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said the government will defend the country’s sovereignty but will continue to boost relations with China, denying it yielded “too much” and “too soon” to maintain friendly relations with Asia’s most powerful country.
“We have upheld our national interest and produced tangible benefits for our people in pursuing friendly and mutually-beneficial ties with China,” Roque said.
Roque issued the statement in response to Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, who said the Philippines conceded “too much, too early, and too soon” to China.
“We have said in a numerous occasions that we will continue to defend our sovereignty and sovereign rights when we discuss our territorial and maritime disputes with China, while maximizing the benefits of our people by promoting economic and other relations with China in which they are no contentious issues between us,” the Palace spokesman said.
Also on Monday, Ambassador to China Jose Sta. Romana said President Duterte’s critics are unable to grasp the country’s “paradigm shift” in foreign policy.
Sta. Romana, too, was reacting to Batongbacal’s statement.
“I think his statement will not stand in the face of evidence. I think it is certainly not true that we gave too soon,” he said.
He added that for a long time the diplomatic relationship of both the Philippine and China has been strained and now the two countries’ relations have turned around.
“I think a number of scholars have not caught up with the situation,” the ambassador said.
He said the Philippines has “not lost an inch from what we were controlling” when Duterte took over as president.
In fact, he said, the country has regained access to Scarborough Shoal.
Sta. Romana said scholars and critics like Batongbacal should have an open mind and be objective so they can see the positive change.
He added that the country will remain neutral as the “strategic rivalry” between the United States and China intensifies.
“We will remain neutral. We don’t want to be the sacrificial lamb in their strategic rivalry,” he said.
“For the Philippines, I think what is important is that we proceed from our own interest,” he added.