Sat, Apr 06, 2019 - Page 4 News List

Duterte tells China not to touch Thitu

HANDS OFF:The Philippine president said he would tell troops to ‘prepare for suicide missions’ if Chinese forces land on the disputed island ‘swarmed’ by vessels

AFP, MANILA

Soldiers stand at attention in front of a Philippine national flag at Thitu Island (Jhongye Island) in the South China Sea on April 21, 2017.

Photo: Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte late on Thursday warned Beijing to back off from a disputed island in the South China Sea, warning of possible military action if China “touches” it amid rising tensions over the key waterway.

Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from the Asian superpower, has mostly withheld his early criticism of Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea — a point of regional contention, because trillions of US dollars of goods pass through it.

However, after the Philippine military warned this week that hundreds of China Coast Guard and Chinese fishing vessels had “swarmed” Manila-held Pagasa Island, also known as Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島), the Philippine president spoke out.

“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pagasa, because I have soldiers there,” Duterte said in speech to prosecutors.

“If you touch it, that’s another story. Then I will tell my soldiers: ‘prepare for suicide missions,’” he added.

Duterte has repeatedly said that war with China would be futile and that the Philippines would lose and suffer heavily in the process.

His comments came after the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement calling the Chinese ships’ presence an “illegal” violation of Philippine sovereignty.

Taiwan, China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have all staked claims to various islands and reefs as well as waterways in the sea, where rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath the waters.

In a major victory for Manila, an international maritime tribunal in 2016, early in Duterte’s presidency, ruled that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis.

However, he has largely set aside that ruling and backed off on their once tense territorial dispute over the sea.

He has been criticized at home for taking too soft a stance on China and getting little of the billions of dollars in investment promised by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

For its part, Beijing has downplayed the rising tension over Pagasa, on Thursday saying that both sides had “exchanged views frankly, amicably and constructively” on the issue.

The US, a long-time ally of the Philippines and former colonial master, has moved to oppose any Chinese expansion in the sea.

For the first time, the US last month said that it would come to Manila’s aid in case of an “armed attack” in the South China Sea.

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