Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte condemned the United States for allegedly “egging” his government into a war with China, daring Washington to attack Beijing and promising only a supporting role for his country, Philippine outlets reported on Sunday.
Duterte is facing significant national backlash from opposition politicians over his refusal to challenge China after the violent sinking of a Philippine fishing ship by a Chinese vessel in sovereign Philippine waters in the South China Sea. Duterte called the hit-and-run sinking a “little maritime accident” and refused to demand that China leave the country’s water. He also suggested sharing Philippine fishing grounds with the Chinese Communist Party, which violates the Philippine constitution.
Despite his controversial friendliness to the Chinese, who have embarked on an extended campaign to colonize most of the South China Sea illegally, a poll released on Monday found record-high approval ratings for the president nationwide.
Duterte reportedly delivered his anti-American tirade on Friday, though Philippine outlets published his remarks on Sunday.
“We can never win a war with China. But I hope China would not overdo things,” Duterte said at an event to celebrate the opening of a rice processing center, according to the Inquirer, a Philippine newspaper. “There is always America pushing us, egging us … making me the bait. What do you think Filipinos are, earthworms?”
“Now I say, you bring your planes, your boats to South China Sea,” Duterte advised the American government. “Fire the first shot and we are just here behind you. Go ahead, let’s fight. Let America declare the war. Let them assemble all their armaments there in the South China Sea. Fire the first shot and I’d be glad to do the next.”
Duterte also blamed the United States for letting China get too strong in the South China Sea. The Communist Party has spearheaded the construction of a network of illegal artificial islands in the region, built out of natural reefs in waters that do not belong to China. Most are in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, which belong to the Philippines and Vietnam. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled that China’s claims to the South China Sea — which also san the sovereign territory of Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Indonesia — were illegal and that the islands constructed violated the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS). China vowed to ignore the ruling and continue expanding its military presence in the region.
Duterte came into office in 2016, a month before the Hague ruling, and has consistently refused to enforce it.
“The United States, they knew [about the construction]. They have a Seventh Fleet [in Japan],” Duterte noted on Friday. “Why didn’t they send it to the Spratly and say ‘Hey guys, you are not supposed to build artificial islands in the high seas, that is exactly prohibited by international law and the fact is you are constructing it within the exclusive economic zone of our friend, the Philippines’?”
“They left them to build it, now it’s all there. All the guns are there, all the missiles are mounted,” he added.
Duterte allowed that, perhaps in a few decades, the Philippines would be wealthy enough to stand a chance in a war with China. Currently, however, “I am not about to order my soldiers to go to the mouths of hell to die without a fight. I cannot do that.”
Duterte has used the same logic throughout his presidency to establish closer ties to China. He has called an attempt to enforce the Hague ruling a “suicide mission” and condemned his political enemies for not valuing the lives of soldiers.
The lives of civilians were at stake last month, however, when a Chinese ship illegally present in Philippine waters sunk a Philippine fishing ship, leaving the crew to die in the water. A Vietnamese ship legally present there rescued the crew hours later. They insisted that the Chinese did not attempt to rescue them and fled, violating maritime law and significantly endangering the lives of the crew. The Chinese later claimed they did not try to help because they feared other Philippine ships, correctly asserting the Chinese ship was not legally present in their waters, would attack them.
In the initial aftermath of the attack, Manila responded with fury.
“We will not allow ourselves to be assaulted, to be bullied, to be the subject of such barbaric, uncivilised and outrageous actions from any source,” Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo told reporters. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana condemned the incident “in the strongest terms” and called the Chinese ship’s moves “not the expected action from a responsible and friendly people.” Duterte, however, remained silent, and after days of refusing to respond dismissed the incident as a “little maritime accident.”
In late June, Duterte also proposed allowing China to legally fish in Philippine waters, a violation of the Philippine constitution which triggered calls for impeachment.
Last year, Duterte’s support for China endangered his popularity. A survey taken in November found that 84 percent of Filipinos disagreed with Duterte’s closeness with Beijing. A poll released Monday, however, seems to have found that Duterte’s popularity was not negatively affected by the Philippine ship sinking. The Social Weather Stations poll, taken after the “little maritime accident” remark, found Duterte enjoying record-high approval ratings. The poll found 80 of respondents were satisfied with Duterte’s job performance, largely on the backs of younger Filipinos.