PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte acknowledged late Tuesday that China was “slowly eating up” the country’s territorial waters by reclaiming reefs and turning them into military garrisons but said the Philippines is not conceding any of its rights in the West Philippine Sea.
The President warned that further encroachment on Philippine territorial waters would be met by military might.
“If it reaches our [exclusive] economic zone, you will have to deal with my soldiers so you can reach an understanding,” he said.
“When China claimed the entire ocean as theirs, there was nothing I could do. There is nothing we can do since that is what they want,” Duterte said in a speech Tuesday on board BRP Davao del Sur in Casiguran Bay, Aurora to send off 50 Filipino scientists to the Philippine Rise, formerly Benham Rise.
Duterte again blamed his predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino III, for doing nothing to stop China’s military buildup in the West Philippine Sea, but erroneously implied that a UN tribunal decision that upheld the Philippine claim was handed down during Aquino’s term.
That decision was in fact handed down in July 2016, after Duterte had assumed office.
In his speech, Duterte said he was willing to fight for the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea, but thought twice about the chances of winning a war against China.
“Before I went to China, I said, well, I’m ready to fight. But is it a battle that I can win?” he said.
He reiterated that he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during one of their meetings that he would eventually insist on the Hague ruling during his term.
“Though I am not insisting on its solution now, I’d like you to know that I am going to China Sea to claim part of our territory and I will dig [for] oil,” he recalled telling the Chinese president.
But Xi advised him not to strain the warming ties between the two countries.
“Well, we just restored our relationships. I think it’s a new era for us, a new day and if I may beg you not to bring this up forcefully because there will be a time that we will be discussing it,” Duterte quoted Xi as saying.
In asserting territorial rights over the Philippine Rise, Duterte said he does not distinguish between sovereign rights and sovereign territory because the underwater feature falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
Duterte also signed an executive proclamation formally declaring parts of Philippine Rise as a marine reserve.
“Last year I issued Executive Order No. 25 which renamed the erstwhile Benham Rise to the Philippine Rise. Today I am issuing a presidential proclamation formally declaring parts of this undersea feature as a marine reserve,” he said.
The President said around 50,000 hectares of the Philippine Rise shall become a strict protection zone limited to scientific studies to be conducted only by Filipinos at this time.
Duterte added that more than 300 hectares shall be designated as a “special fisheries management area.”
The 50 scientists the President sent off are about to begin a six-month research stint in the Philippine Rise.
The scientists are set to conduct mapping surveys, biological investigations, and assessment of the coral reef and fishery stock until November.
Duterte assured the scientists that the resources of the government were at their disposal.
The activities to be conducted by the scientists will be “vital to the protection and management of Philippine Rise and its vast resources,” Duterte said.
“I have complete faith in the capabilities of our world-class scientists and I recognize the need to provide them with the necessary means to fulfill [their] mandate,” Duterte said.
Meanwhile, oppoosition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV taunted Duterte on his recent statement that China would not allow him to be ousted.
“First of all, I don’t believe China would even say that because they know that they don’t have the power to stop any leadership change from happening,” said Trillanes.
“But, more importantly, Duterte’s statement betrays his paranoia about the state of affairs in his own country. No one is trying to kick him out; he is doing the destabilizing all by himself,” added Trillanes.
Duterte said Tuesday his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, promised to protect him from any ouster attempts.
“The assurances of Xi Jinping were very encouraging... ‘We will not allow you to be taken out from your office, and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs,’” Duterte said.
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