Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told a celebrity pastor on Wednesday that he was invoking the nation’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States to demand the U.S. Navy attack China.
Duterte was responding to widespread domestic pressure for his government to expel Chinese ships from the Spratly Islands, located within Philippine sovereign territory in the South China Sea. The Chinese Communist Party claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea despite a 2016 international tribunal finding that Beijing’s claims were incorrect and its construction of artificial islands in Philippine and Vietnamese territory is illegal.
China vowed to ignore the ruling and has since continued sending fishing vessels into sovereign Philippine waters. China’s practices prompted multiple protests in Manila this month following the sinking of a Philippine fishing ship anchored by Recto Bank, territory that the international community, barring the Chinese communist regime, considers indisputably Filipino. The Chinese ship that rammed into the Filipino fishermen sunk the ship and fled, leaving them to drown. The men were ultimately rescued by a Vietnamese ship that legally passed near their wreckage.
Duterte’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, initially called the sinking “barbaric,” but Duterte himself has insisted that an investigation exonerated China and that he would not make any moves against Beijing’s large People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Speaking to Pastor Apollo Quiboloy on his television program, Give Us This Day, on Wednesday, Duterte reiterated a repeated vow that he would only attack China if America attacks first. He urged the United States to attack China militarily – an act of war – in response to the Recto Bank sinking.
The Mutual Defense Treaty between Washington and Manila requires the U.S. military to retaliate if a foreign power attacks the Philippines.
“I’m calling now America. I’m invoking the RP-US pact,” Duterte said. “I would like America to gather all their 7th Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now. I will join them. I will ride on the boat where admiral of the U.S.”
“When the Americans say, we’re here now, ready, I will press them,” he added, suggesting that such an act of war would be “the end of Palawan,” the province of the Philippines closest to the triggering incident. “Palawan may be devastated, occupied or their will be nuclear bombs. We will dry up. So nothing will grow here, we can just wait, just like a big hole coming our way, to suck us to eternity and then we can sing the ‘Mona Lisa.’ And they just lie there, and they die there.”
According to the Philippine Star, the naval fleet Duterte demanded to come protect his country, the 7th Fleet, is currently headquartered in Japan and boasts 20,000 sailors.
The Mutual Defense Treaty binds the Philippines and the United States to “act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
In the same interview with Quiboloy, Duterte insisted that he had the right to grant Chinese fishing ships the privilege of fishing in Philippine waters, even though the Philippine constitution explicitly forbids the president from allowing any foreigners to do so.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’m the owner, and I’m just giving the fishing rights,” Duterte said of the Spratly Island waters. He went on to insist that he had not “lost” the South China Sea to China and that he could not do anything to enforce the 2016 Hague ruling against China because “the property is in their possession” and it would take military action greater than what the Philippines is capable of to remove them.
Duterte’s administration has floated the possibility of invoking the Mutual Defense Treaty against China on multiple occasions. Last week, Duterte accused Washington of wanting a war with China and using the Philippines as “bait,” insisting that Americans fight the war themselves.
“Now I say, you bring your planes, your boats to South China Sea,” Duterte said. “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.”
“There is always America pushing us, egging us … making me the bait. What do you think Filipinos are, earthworms?” he asked.
Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, suggested invoking the treaty against China over the Recto Bank incident in June.
“If that is what is stated in the treaty, then we will follow that–if that is the agreement,” Panelo said at the time. “Whatever the agreement tells us to do, we will do that,” he added.
U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Kim Sung said in response to the incident in June that the State Department is aware of the treaty and that “any armed attack on Filipino vessels, Filipino aircraft will trigger our obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.”
It is not clear if the Recto Bank incident fits that definition. No reports suggested that the Chinese fishing vessel that was illegally present in those waters was armed, or that it used weapons to sink the Philippine ship. Instead, eyewitnesses said the Chinese ship rammed itself into the Philippine ship while it was anchored, essentially tearing it apart.
The Chinese communist regime has insisted that the incident was accidental and civilian in nature.
“I’d like to stress that this is only an accidental collision between fishing boats at sea. It is irresponsible and counter-constructive to link this incident with China-Philippines friendship or even make political interpretations out of it,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters in June. “In a highly responsible attitude, China will continue to earnestly investigate into this matter. We are ready to enhance communication with the Philippine side on the investigation, increase understanding, dispel mistrust and find out what actually happened.”