MANILA (UPDATE)- President Rodrigo Duterte was "being realistic and practical" when he said that he cannot do anything against Beijing's pursuit of territory and resources in the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Manila, his defense chief said Monday.
When Duterte said in his last State of the Nation Address last month that he was “inutile” in the maritime issue, he may have meant that the Philippines cannot address the issue “militarily,” said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The US, Manila’s defense ally, cannot stay permanently in the Philippines to help protect its territory, he said.
"He’s just being realistic and practical that we cannot do anything," Lorenzana told ANC.
Instead, Duterte since 2016 has engaged in talks with China and agreed on the joint development of potential oil resources that is "acceptable to both sides", he said.
China was also “true to their words” of refraining from occupying new features in the South China Sea and had only improved existing facilities in reclaimed islands, said Lorenzana.
Beijing last week praised the Duterte administration for rebuffing the "attempts" of some countries to "incite tensions” in the waterway when it opted out of maritime drills in the West Philippine Sea with other countries.
The Philippines cannot join the exercises because its frigates are unarmed and it does not have enough ships, said Lorenzana.
Manila also has “to balance our relationship with each of these superpowers to protect our interest,” he said.
“Hindi naman tayo puwedeng makipag-exercise d’yan kasama nila… Kung umalis sila, tayo ang maiwan dito and we have to deal with the Chinese, whether we like it or not,” said the Defense chief.
(We cannot exercise them with there. Once they leave, we’ll be the ones left here.)
Lorenzana said there was nothing new with Washington’s recent statement that rejected Beijing's claims in the South China Sea.
“It’s easy to talk about that, but we need when push comes to shove, will they be backing us up? Will they be there when there will be shooting?” he said.
“We have to study further kung anong gustong mangyari ng US (what the US wants to happen),” he added.
The Philippine Navy chief also defended Duterte’s order, saying that the President's order was in complete adherence to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the disputed waters (DOC), particularly citing the treaty's Provision No.5, which states that “the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
“So if you’ll notice, the participants to these South China Sea exercises, these are countries like the US, Japan, Australia, and probably India, who are not signatories to this 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo explained.
“Our guiding principle here is adherence to the rule of law.” A joint exercised that could be misinterpreted, Bacordo said, can justifiably be avoided.
China however is a signatory to the declaration as well and has grossly violated the same provision that the Philippines swears to uphold.
The entirety of Provision No. 5 reads that "the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”
The 2002 DOC was already in force when China started building its seven artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea, which are now fortified and militarized, many of which are inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
US relations with China have markedly deteriorated in recent months, especially over trade disputes, the coronavirus pandemic and Beijing's crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
The Philippines should engage with other Southeast Asian nations that are also claiming parts of the South China Sea, instead of talking to "outsiders", Lorenzana said.
- With reports from Jamaine Punzalan and Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News; Agence France-Presse