MANILA – China finally broke its silence on remarks by President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday (May 19) that President Xi Jinping had threatened “war” if the Philippines insists on drilling for oil or gas in disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying also sought to make light of Duterte’s comments, noting he and Xi had agreed to “strengthen communication” on important bilateral issues.
China was willing to work with the Philippines to handle disputes peacefully, she told reporters.
Duterte made no mention of the issue during a news briefing on Monday before he left for Russia.
According to an earlier Reuters report, Duterte said on Friday (May 19) he discussed it with Xi when the two met in Beijing on Monday (May 15), and got a firm, but friendly warning.
“We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours,” Duterte said in a speech, recalling his conversation with Xi.
“His response to me, ‘we’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.”
Duterte has long expressed his admiration for Xi and said he would raise the arbitration ruling with him eventually, but needed first to strengthen relations between the two countries, which the Philippines is hoping will yield billions of dollars in Chinese loans and infrastructure investments.
Duterte has a reputation for his candid, at times incendiary, remarks and his office typically backpedals on his behalf and blames the media for distorting his most controversial comments.
Duterte’s critics have made much of his refusal to push China to comply with a ruling last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, at the end of a case brought by the Philippines against China, which was largely in favor of the Philippines. China has never recognized the case.
PH rights to access gas, oil fields
The Hague award clarifies Philippine sovereign rights in its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone to access offshore oil and gas fields, including the Reed Bank, 85 nautical miles off its coast.
It also invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim on its maps denoting sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
There is pressure on the Philippines government to resume preparation work for tapping into Reed Bank, some 80 nautical miles from the mainland, well within its EEZ. A 2012 survey on Reed Bank had indicated gas resources that could equal or even top that in Malampaaya gas field off Palawan, which is seen to dry up by year 2024.
Duterte’s rivals have likened his refusal to insist that China abide by the ruling as akin to surrendering sovereignty.
Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon said the government “should not allow our country to be bullied and threatened.”
Earlier on Sunday, Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, who chairs the Liberal Party, urged recently confirmed Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano to file a formal protest against Beijing over Xi’s alleged threat of war.
Joint patrols with US
Former foreign affairs minister Albert del Rosario, under whose watch Manila filed and won the UN tribunal case, said the Philippines should do joint maritime patrols with traditional ally the United States, an idea he said Duterte had jettisoned as part of his “full embrace of China”.
Duterte chafes at what he considers Philippine subservience to the United States and has sought to engage more with China, which has promised loans and investment that will be vital to his ambitious $180 billion infrastructure overhaul.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Saturday urged the government to file another international arbitration case over the reported Chinese threat, and also lodge a complaint with the United Nations.
According to Magdalo Partylist Rep. Gary Alejano, failure to do so could mean Duterte would be “selling us out.”
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said the Philippines was “very clear that we are not giving up our claim of sovereignty and sovereign rights”.