President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday night vowed to send warships to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) to drill for oil and other minerals should China begin to explore the area’s natural resources.
In his pre-recorded address, Duterte assured the public that he would send Philippine ships in the waters to stake a claim on the area that has been frequented and controlled by the Chinese militia for many years.
China has infrastructures on the Philippine-owned Bajo de Masinloc, Subi Reef and the Mischief Reef despite its earlier assurances that it will not militarize the disputed area.
These facilities included airstrips and military facilities.
The three areas are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and were featured in the 1734 Velarde map against China’s recently devised nine-dash line claim.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) concluded that China’s historic rights claims over the maritime areas inside the “nine-dash line” have no lawful effect if they exceed what’s entitled to on 12 July 2016.
It was rejected by China and Taiwan.
More than 200 militia ships also occupied a large part of the water near the Julian Felipe Reef from December last year, forming a large wall of boats anchored hull-to-hull to project impenetrable ownership of the fishing grounds and sea lanes.
The Chinese flotilla stayed in the Philippine water territory until last week when the United States sent powerful American ships and their air and submarine support to accompany two Philippines ships in reclaiming control of the area.
Duterte was assailed by many fronts for his perceived inaction on the issue that presidential spokesperson Secretary Roque denied when he claimed the Chief Executive was handling the matter using “silent diplomacy”.
“When we start to mine, when we start to get whatever it is that is in the bowels of the China Sea (West Philippine Sea)… our oil, I’ll be there, but by that time I will send my ships there,” Duterte said.
“I will send my grace ships to state a claim. You can be assured. If they get oil, nickel, and precious stones, that would be the time we should act on it,” the President added.
Duterte reminded the Chinese government of their previous agreement that Manila and Beijing could only explore the area through joint oil and gas activity.
In 2019, Duterte said he would push for a joint exploration of natural resources with Beijing in the WPS for as long as Manila gets the bigger share.
“If they start drilling, I’ll ask them ‘Is that part of our agreement?’ Because if it is not part of our agreement, if you start to drill oil there, I will also drill my oil there,’” he stated.
In the same speech, he admitted that he was not inclined to assert the country’s jurisdiction in the area for now.
Duterte also defended his silence over the presence of the Chinese ships within the Philippines’ EEZ, saying the country can only reclaim China-occupied areas in the WPS by force and with bloodshed.
“If we go there, really to find out and to assert jurisdiction, it would be bloody. It would result in violence that maybe we cannot win,” he said.
“The issue of the West Philippine Sea remains a question forever until such time that we can take it back. There’s no other way but war,” Duterte added.
Duterte also lashed out at critics who wanted him to confront China over the continued presence of Chinese warships at the Julian Felipe Reef, located within the Philippines’ EEZ about 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan.
He particularly cited the purported group of 500 active and retired military officers who were allegedly plotting to oust him, as well as retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who has been criticizing him for keeping mum on the maritime dispute.
In the past week, a Twitter account dubbed “Info Ops” has been posting about an alleged Viber group composed of military officers who would supposedly withdraw their support to the President if he does not take a stronger stance against China’s aggression in the WPS.
Senator Panfilo Lacson, meanwhile, said President Duterte cannot wave the white flag on WPS.
The lawmaker warned that the President could be sending a “wrong message” with his recent pronouncement that the Philippines risks bloodshed and a no-win situation against China.
He stressed that the country’s Commander-in-Chief cannot afford such error, especially implying surrender.
“He’s the leader of our country and he’s the Commander-in-Chief of our Armed Forces. He can think of anything and speak about anything except surrender,” Lacson said.
“Remember, we have an arbitral ruling in our favor and it’s permanent although it’s unenforceable. There are so many things to think about except surrender. We cannot wave the white flag, so to speak,” he added.
“I am not saying the President is actually raising the white flag but that’s the implication. If the officers and men of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) would take it that way, it could be disastrous to Philippine sovereignty,” he stated.
Lacson, who chairs the Senate national defense committee, said the government can build strong alliances with other countries, especially now that other nations like the US and Japan have formed united fronts against the China advance.