Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte challenged the United States to prepare its naval fleet to confront China amid Philippines’ territorial row with China in the West Philippine Sea, also known as South China Sea.
Duterte made the dare on July 17, saying in an interview: “I’m calling now America. I’m invoking the RP-US pact.”
“I would like America to gather all their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now. I will join them,” Duterte said.
The Philippines and the U.S> have a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT). The pact allows either parties to assist the other in the event of attacks on its metropolitan territory, island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific or on its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.
The U.S. has affirmed that the scope of coverage includes the South China Sea. However, the U.S. has also declared that it does not take sides in territorial disputes there.
It was the second time that Duterte has said that he is invoking the MDT.
The Seventh Fleet, part of the US Pacific Fleet, is stationed in Japan.
The Philippine president said he would join the US forces in challenging China.
“I will ride on the boat where [the] admiral of the US [is]. But I will drag along this Carpio and the rest, Albert. When the Americans say, ‘We’re here now, ready,’ I will press it,” Duterte said.
He was referring to Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, who have criticized his policy on the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte, however, warned that a shooting war would devastate Palawan.
“Maybe that would be the end of Palawan. Palawan may be devastated, maybe occupied or if there will be nuclear bombs, it 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,” he said.
Duterte’s statement came days after he told The Manila Times that he was ready to join the US should the country’s long-time ally declare war with China to stop its intrusion in the West Philippine Sea.
Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez said the two countries were in talks to “strengthen” the decades-old treaty and that this might be taken up in a scheduled meeting in September.
Washington’s top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, previously vowed that US would secure and defend the Philippines in case of an attack.
Suggestions to invoke the MDT arose over the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel near the Recto Bank last June.
Duterte had repeatedly said that the Philippines has no capability to go to war with China or enforce the ruling of a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal dismissing China’s claims in the disputed sea based on its nine-dash line policy.
“I’ve been frank; I cannot win a war with China. Pero kung gustuhin nila (But if they want to), I’m putting China on advice, I’m awaiting word from the United States that if they’re willing to go to war to drive you, then I will do it,” Duterte said.
The President earlier dared the U.S. to “fire the first shot” at the Chinese in the disputed waters.
Since assuming the presidency, Duterte had sought to downplay Manila’s maritime dispute with Beijing in exchange for improved ties with the world’s second largest economy.
Duterte’s invocation of the Philippines-U.S. accord came after officials from both nations wrapped up their two-day “strategic dialogue” on July 16, covering issues such as defence, security, development and global diplomatic engagement.
“Both sides recognised the importance of a strong Philippines-US alliance in enhancing security cooperation and promoting regional stability and security,” a joint statement issued after the meeting said.
“Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to uphold freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the South China Sea, and stressed the importance of peacefully resolving disputes in accordance with international law, as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention,” it added.
In the television interview, Duterte insisted that while Beijing had permission to fish in the areas claimed by Manila in the resource-rich waterway, the Philippines was still the “owner” of the West Philippine Sea – as it is known in the country.
“As far as I’m concerned, I am the owner, and I’m just giving the fishing rights,” Duterte said.
“We filed a case for arbitration actually, and we won,” said Duterte, adding that despite the ruling, China continued claiming rights over the territory.
China recently acknowledged its fishing vessel hit a Philippine boat in the disputed South China Sea, in an incident that prompted an outcry in the Philippines.