Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once again criticized the United States for not acting with sufficient boldness to keep China from usurping the Philippine waters of the South China Sea, questioning why Washington did not send an “armada” to the Spratly Islands.”
Duterte said he asked the American Ambassador to Manila, Sung Kim, why America had not acted. “Had America really wanted to avoid trouble, early on… why did you not send the armada of the 7th Fleet which is stationed there in the Pacific, you just make a U-turn and go there and tell them right on their face, stop it?” Duterte said he asked the envoy on Monday.
Duterte added that Kim answered that he was not in the position of ambassador to the Philippines at the time. “His assignment was his fellow Korean, the president of North Korea, another crazy guy,” Duterte said, adding that Kim joked that every gray hair on his head was the product of having to serve as ambassador to South Korea.
Kim took over as Manila’s chief U.S. envoy in November, succeeding Phillip Goldberg. Kim has had some more success in getting Duterte to speak to him than Goldberg, who Duterte once notably referred to in public statements as an “annoying homosexual” and “son of a whore.”
This is the second time this week that Duterte has reprimanded the United States for being insufficiently active to defend the Philippines – a sharp turn away from his demands the U.S. military leave the southern part of the country in September. “Why did you not, the first instance, go to Chinese working there, building structures there?” he questioned the U.S. Navy last Friday. “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.”
During the same speech, an address to the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), Duterte joked that China’s officials “really want to make the Philippines a province of China.”
Unlike that speech, however, Duterte appeared to seek to mend the relationship with Washington in his comments Wednesday. “We remain friends with America in charting a new course,” he said, while warning that a war between Manila and the Philippines would result in severe losses for the Phillippines.
Duterte also reportedly “said he will invoke an international arbitration ruling that declared China has no historic title to the disputed waters if Beijing drills for oil or gas in a shoal contested by China and the Philippines,” the first time Duterte has threatened to do so. The international arbitration ruling in question is a July 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that found China’s claims in the South China Sea – which expand over the territory of Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia in addition to the Philippines – were invalid and their presence in the region illegal. China has vowed to disregard the ruling and has pressured Duterte to do the same.
The Philippines claims the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and Benham Rise. While Chinese officials have repeatedly claimed not to have an interest in the Benham Rise or plans to construct military facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, China has constructed artificial islands on some reefs in the Spratly Islands, equipping them with surveillance facilities, aircraft landing strips, and missiles.
China has invited officials from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to bilateral talks regarding the South China Sea territories, according to the Philippine Star. “This is a new proposal, a bilateral consultation mechanism specifically on the South China Sea,” foreign affairs spokesman Charles Jose said on Wednesday. The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed the invitation and said Beijing hopes the meetings will begin to take place in May.
Beijing also reiterated that it had no interest in the Benham Rise during Wednesday’s regular Foreign Ministry press briefing. “China fully respects the right of the Philippines to the continental shelf of Benham Rise. There is no such occasion as China challenging relevant rights of the Philippines,” spokesman Lu Kang told reporters. “Sino-Philippine relations now enjoy a sound growth momentum thanks to collective efforts of the two sides. Our practical cooperation is moving forward quickly with remarkable achievements.”
The Benham Rise became a point of contention last month, following the publication of a report in a local Chinese outlet claiming that the government sought to build on that formation. Beijing denied the report.
China has nonetheless continued its construction in the Spratly Islands. Satellite images published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) this week show near-complete “naval, air, radar, and defensive facilities” on three of the major land formations in the Spratly Islands, facilitating the use of combat aircraft and expanding surveillance capabilities on the islands.