PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte on Thursday said he opposes the conduct of military drills in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, adding that the area is in the “possession” of the People’s Republic of China.
Mr. Duterte made the remarks in Singapore amid a conference there by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first State Visit to country on Nov. 20 and 21.
In another development, two US aircraft carriers with around 150 fighter jets are scheduled to conduct “complex” warfare drills in the Philippine Sea northeast of the archipelago, the US Navy said on Thursday.
In a televised press conference in Singapore, Mr. Duterte was asked if it was wise to hold military drills in the South China Sea.
“No, because I said China is already in possession. It’s now in their hands. So why do you have to create frictions, strong fri[ctions], [or] a military activity that will prompt a response from China?” the Philippine president said.
He added that he does not mind other countries going to war, “except that the Philippines is just beside those [artificial] islands.”
“And if there’s a shooting there, my country will be the first to suffer. That’s my only national interest there. Nothing else,” Mr. Duterte said.
Also on Thursday, the US Seventh Fleet said in a statement that the Japan-based USS Ronald Reagan and the USS John C Stennis deployed from the US West coast are scheduled to carry out air, surface and anti-submarine warfare operations in the Philippine Sea.
“Bringing two carrier strike groups together provides unparalleled naval combat power,” US Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer said.
On Mr. Xi’s state visit next week, Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno said on Wednesday that the visit “will put pressure on the speed [of ] the implementation” of China’s projects in the Philippines.
The first basket includes the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project, the Philippine National Railways’ South Long Haul Project, and the Davao-Samal Bridge Construction Project, among others.
The second basket has the Ambal-Simuay River and Rio Grande de Mindanao River Flood Control Projects, Pasig-Marikina River and Manggahan Floodway Bridges Construction Project, Subic-Clark Railway Project, Safe Philippines Project Phase 1, and the Rehabilitation of the Agus-Pulangi Hydroelectric Power Plants Project.
“You see a few of them have already been groundbreaking: the bridge in Intramuros-Binondo, the other one will be the Long Haul [project] that will not be done this year, maybe next year. There has been information from NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) on this…. I think we have already 3 billion dollars out of 9 billion already specified,” Mr. Diokno said.
On Thursday, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said Malacañang “welcomes the formal announcement of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the designation of the Philippines as the new Country Coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations. Our country will assume the said role until year 2021.”
For his part, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. defended Mr. Duterte’s absence in some of the meetings at the ASEAN gathering.
Mr. Locsin said in part: “I’ve seen different leaders stand up and leave including the chairman. And it doesn’t reflect badly. Then the Secretary or their Ministers of foreign affairs sit down. Right now, I won’t mention again, but a major power wasn’t there and the minister of foreign affairs sat in and he arrived. This morning I sat down and then I get a tap on my shoulder and it was the President and he says ‘I’m here.’”
Mr. Duterte himself explained his absence, saying, “Why? What’s wrong with my nap? You know, I don’t eat. I don’t eat breakfast, and I’m sure you ladies do know that. We don’t eat breakfast.”
He said his rest was “[s]till not good enough. But enough to sustain the endurance for the last day’s [events].”
Mr. Locsin, for his part, asked about Chinese weather stations in the South China Sea, said, “You know, that has not been cleared. I’d like to get Secretary of Defense to tell me. You guys claimed there is a weather station out there. I suggest you guys fly there. Why not?”
“I don’t think there are claims of ownerships, there are claims of sovereignty. They are weather stations,” the Philippines’ top diplomat also said, adding: “I would stand up in the UN (United Nations) and I would assert what are our rights, what was the nature of the Hague tribunal decision under UNCLOS to which both China and Philippines subscribe.”— reports by Arjay L. Balinbin, Reuters, Camille A. Aguinaldo, and Elijah Joseph C. Tubayan