The Philippine strong man Rodrigo Duterte has warned China to keep off a disputed island in the South China Sea, warning of possible military action if it 'touches' it amid rising tensions over the crucial waterway.
President Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from the Asian superpower, has mostly withheld his early criticism of Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea which is a point of contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it.
But as the Philippine military warned that hundreds of Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels had 'swarmed' their Pag-asa island, also known as Thitu, it's president issued this warning. The autocrat who had threatened to send to the gallows those dealing in drugs thundered, 'I will not plead or beg, I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there.'
He continued, 'If you touch it, that’s another story. Then I will tell my soldiers are ‘prepared for suicide missions.' Though Duterte had repeatedly said war with China would be futile and that the Philippines would suffer heavily, his new warning came as soon as Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling the Chinese ships’ presence an “'illegal' violation of Philippine sovereignty.
Apart from Philippines, a host of other countries have staked a claim to the islands and reefs as well as the waterways that are rich in petroleum reserves, like Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam apart from big brother China. All have claims to various islands and reefs as well as waterways in the sea, with its rich petroleum reserves. An international maritime tribunal had ruled early during Duterte’s presidency in 2016 that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis, that had been a major victory for Manila..
However, Duterte has largely set aside that ruling and backed off on their once tense territorial dispute. For this he had been criticised at home as also for his too soft a stance on China and getting, in return, little of the billions of dollars in investment Xi Jingping had promised.. Beijing has downplayed the rising tension over Pag-asa, saying both sides had 'exchanged views frankly, amicably and constructively.'
Philippines' long-time ally and earlier masters, he US has moved to oppose any Chinese expansion in the sea and for the first time said in March that it would come to Manila’s aid in case of an 'armed attack' in the South China Sea. For good measure, the US navy has also forcefully asserted its right to freedom of navigation in the area, repeatedly sailing close to the contentious islands and drawing Chinese protests. (UNI)