The Philippines cannot retake parts of the West Philippine Sea illegally occupied by China without going to “war,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said this week.
The West Philippine Sea is Manila’s name for the section of the disputed South China Sea directly west of the Philippines. China refused to recall a 220-strong fishing fleet from the West Philippine Sea, originally moored at the Philippines’ Julian Felipe Reef but now believed to have scattered throughout the Philippines’ sovereign maritime territory, since early March.
“For me, there is no other way but a war. If we promote a war against China and America, it can be accelerated. But at what cost to us? That is the problem. But we can retake it only by force. There is no way that we can get back what they call [the West] Philippine Sea without any bloodshed. That’s true,” Duterte said during a nationally televised address on Monday.
“You know the cost of war. And if we go there really to find out and to assert jurisdiction, I said, it would be bloody. It will result in a violence that we cannot maybe win,” the president added.
Monday’s address marks Duterte’s first official statement on the Chinese occupation of Julian Felipe Reef, over a month after the Philippine Coast Guard first spotted China’s massive fishing fleet moored “in line formation” along the reef’s shore on March 7. Duterte previously faced criticism for his reluctance to criticize China’s illegal presence within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which includes the West Philippine Sea and grants Manila the sole right to fish and explore for natural resources in its immediately surrounding waters.
“We are not in possession of the sea,” Duterte claimed of the West Philippine Sea on Monday.
“I asked [Philippine Defense] Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana: Can we go there? Can we send our ships to the Spratly Islands?”
The Philippines’ Spratly Island chain is located near Julian Felipe Reef and is also illegally claimed by Beijing.
“It’s to show Filipinos that, no matter how many times we return there, nothing happens because we are not in the possession of the sea. They have it,” Duterte said.
Defense Secretary Lorenzana, who was present during Duterte’s address via Zoom, spoke up to correct the president, insisting the Philippines remains in full possession of the West Philippine Sea.
“Mr. President, there is no obstacle to us going there. Even our Navy ships keep going to Pag-asa Island and their ship[s] there …. Our ships can go there. In fact, our ships in Palawan regularly conduct resupply missions to the islands in the Kalayaan Island Group,” Lorenzana said.
Palawan is a Philippine province located near Julian Felipe Reef. The presence of China’s fishing fleet in the reef’s waters since March 7 directly violates Philippine maritime sovereignty. Manila filed multiple diplomatic protests against Beijing ordering it to recall the vessels over the past month but to no avail. The Philippine military previously said it believes the fishing fleet is manned by Chinese militia members. China refuses to move the boats and instead doubled down on its continued presence at Juan Felipe Reef, illegally claiming sovereignty over the sea structure. While the fleet largely dispersed from the reef in recent weeks, the Philippines believes the vessels remain within the boundaries of the nation’s EEZ.
Manila ordered increased “maritime sovereignty patrols” near Julian Felipe Reef and throughout the West Philippine Sea in response to the incursion, including daily flyovers of Juan Felipe Reef by Philippine fighter jets. The Philippine Navy and Air Force deployed nearly a dozen additional ships and five aircraft to the West Philippine Sea this week to reinforce the sovereignty patrols.
An independent arbitral tribunal established by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s claims to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea were illegal. China refused to accept the ruling of the landmark case brought by the Philippines, and pushed forward with its illegal claims to nearly all of the valuable waterway since then.