DUTERTE: CHINA THREAT­ENED WAR OVER SEA ROW

Re­spond­ing to crit­i­cism he is too weak with Bei­jing over South China Sea dis­pute

New Straits Times - - World -

MANILA

PHILIP­PINE Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte said yes­ter­day China’s lead­ers told him they were pre­pared to go to war over com­pet­ing claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte, who met Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Premier Li Ke­qiang in Bei­jing this week, said he was making the threat pub­lic in re­sponse to do­mes­tic crit­i­cism he was be­ing too weak with China over the dis­pute.

“I re­ally said it to their face. That it is ours and we in­tend to drill oil there,” Duterte said, re­veal­ing his pre­vi­ously un­re­ported plans to ex­plore for nat­u­ral re­sources in dis­puted ar­eas.

“And they told me: ‘Well, we’re friends. We do not want to quar­rel with you. We want to main­tain the present warm re­la­tion­ship. But if you force the is­sue we’ll go to war.’”

The com­pet­ing claims to the sea, which is be­lieved to sit atop vast oil and gas de­posits, have for decades made it one of Asia’s po­ten­tial mil­i­tary flash­points.

China claims most of the sea, a key wa­ter­way for global ship­ping, and has re­claimed dis­puted reefs and in­stalled mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties on them.

An in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal ruled in July last year that China’s claims to most of the sea were with­out le­gal ba­sis, in a case filed by the Philip­pines un­der Duterte’s pre­de­ces­sor, Benigno Aquino.

But China vowed to ig­nore the rul­ing and warned the Philip­pines against try­ing to use the ver­dict as lever­age.

Duterte, who be­gan his six-year term in June last year, agreed to take a soft stance with China, claim­ing that if he did not do so it might lead to war.

He has also sought closer ties with China to win bil­lions of dol­lars of Chi­nese in­vest­ments and loans, while loos­en­ing the Philip­pines’ long-stand­ing al­liance with the United States.

That change of tack earned Duterte a state visit to China in Oc­to­ber last year, when he met Xi. Duterte re­turned to China this week to take part in the Belt and Road Fo­rum for In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion.

On Tues­day, Duterte said he was open to exploring the sea’s nat­u­ral re­sources with China and Viet­nam, but did not men­tion the other claimants. He also re­it­er­ated that he had no im­me­di­ate plans to pres­sure Bei­jing over the ar­bi­tral tri­bunal’s rul­ing. AFP

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