Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said “in jest” during a speech Thursday that he believed China was seeking to turn his country into “a province” of theirs, after condemning the United States for not doing enough to stop China from building artificial islands on Philippine territory in the South China Sea.
“They really want to make the Philippines a province of China,” Duterte joked, according to the local outlet Rappler, while addressing a convention of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).
Duterte made the joke in the context of Beijing offering to cooperate on a variety of infrastructure projects when he met with President Xi Jinping on his recent visit to China.
The Philippines has historically been a reliable American ally, but Duterte’s tenure has introduced new tensions into that bilateral relationship, which China has sought to exploit by investing in Philippine infrastructure projects and selling Duterte weapons and equipment for the Philippine police force.
While offering investment opportunities to the Philippines, China has continued developing illegal construction projects in Philippine territory within the South China Sea. China claims almost the entirety of the sea – a region Beijing called the “nine-dash line.” The region includes sovereign territory belonging to the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia.
Most recently, reports have indicated that China is interested in expanding its presence around the Scarborough Shoal, a formation solidly within Philippine borders. The Asian outlet ABS-CBN notes that Duterte has done little to challenge China in that area and that “the president recently drew flak for his weak response to reports that China was planning to build” there.
Apparently aware of this criticism, Duterte attacked the United States during his Thursday speech for not doing enough to stop China from constructing artificial islands near the Spratly and Paracel Island chains, shared by Vietnam and the Philippines.
“Why did you not, the first instance, go to Chinese working there, building structures there?” he asked of the U.S. Navy. “Why in hell, America, the only one who can act there, why did it want my navy to go there? It will be a massacre for my soldiers.”
“Why did you not reprimand them? Why did you not send five aircraft carriers? And you had to wait for the problem to ripen to an international issue involving, this time, so many countries,” he continued. “You could have cut the problem in the bud had you taken a decisive action.”
“We cannot stop them because they are building it with their mind fixed that they own the place. China will go to war,” he concluded. “We are no match and we have to be brutally frank to admit it. Let’s not delude ourselves.”
In the same speech, Duterte reportedly admitted to telling Chinese officials during his visit, “I don’t like Americans, we’re the same.”
Duterte’s anti-American tone during this speech is a departure from his earlier attitude this week when he praised President Donald Trump and vowed to “give it all” to secure friendly diplomatic relations with America. “President Trump and I are okay. I am okay with President Trump and I can assure him also of our friendship and cooperation,” he said. “We have no problem there.”
While insulting President Barack Obama as a “crazy man” who “was planning to jail me,” Duterte nonetheless concluded on Sunday that, with the exception of military alliances, he was open to working with Washington.
In addition to challenging the Philippines in the Scarborough Shoal area, China recently sent a survey ship to the Benham Rise, another formation within Philippine territory. Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Duterte had ordered the government to begin construction on “structures” in the region to keep China out, without specifying what type of structures or what timeframe Duterte hoped to see construction begin in. “We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana said.
The Chinese government has insisted that it is not interested in militarizing the region or claiming territory that is not theirs, while also asserting that a 2016 international tribunal’s verdict that its claims in the region were illegal was a joint U.S.-Japanese conspiracy to curb Chinese growth. The South China Sea featured prominently in discussions Friday between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who was in Canberra for a diplomatic visit.
“China never has any intention to engage in militarisation in the South China Sea,” Li told reporters. “China’s facilities, Chinese islands and reefs, are primarily for civilian purposes and, even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation.”