Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte escalated his unusually confrontational rhetoric with China over the fate of a disputed South China Sea island on Thursday, warning Beijing that Philippine troops are prepared to conduct “suicide missions” if China does not back down.
“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you to lay off the Pagasa because I have soldiers their,” Duterte said in a speech on Thursday, using the common Filipino name for Thitu Island in the Spratly chain.
“If you touch it, that’s another story. Then I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for suicide missions,’” Duterte warned the Chinese.
Duterte pulled his punch by clarifying that his musings about suicide missions were “not a warning but a word of advice to a friend,” as the South China Morning Post put it.
The Philippines lodged formal protests with China this week over a huge number of Chinese fishing boats swarming around the island, which as Duterte indicated hosts a small force of soldiers from the Philippines manning a small airfield. The waters around the island are frequented by Filipino fishermen, who complain the flotilla of largely inactive Chinese trawlers are blocking their access to favored fishing grounds.
The presence of Chinese coast guard and naval vessels in the flotilla, along with paramilitary “maritime militia” crews aboard the trawlers, led the Philippines to complain China is inexorably taking control of Thitu Island.
Duterte’s remarks could be taken as a blustery confession of impotence since he has repeatedly backed down from confronting China over disputed territory and stated that military resistance would be futile. Musing about suicide missions could be a way of throwing up his hands and trying to get attention from the international community. Also, Duterte has been criticized at home for taking a soft line with Beijing, so his talk of suicide missions could be a sarcastic jab at those who want him to confront China.
Duterte might also be trying to catch the ear of the United States, whose military relationship with the Philippines has grown contentious over the past decade as China’s power increased.
The Philippine government felt abandoned by the Obama administration during some key confrontations with China. The Trump administration has stressed it will stand with the Philippines during any South China Sea confrontation, most recently restating that commitment in March, but some Filipinos caution against counting too heavily upon American assistance, while others have the opposite concern and worry that Washington’s pledges of support will provoke Beijing.
One Philippine official in the latter camp is Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said in March that American freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea could draw the Philippines into a “shooting war” with China. His stance makes for an interesting contrast with Duterte’s talk of suicide missions if China goes too far with Thitu Island.
The Philippine Foreign Ministry characterized the Chinese flotilla around the island as “illegal,” dismissed Beijing’s claims that the Chinese government has no involvement with the supposedly spontaneous surge of activity in the area, and called on China to refrain from activities that “create tension, mistrust, and uncertainty and threaten regional peace and stability.”