Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has claimed that China would go to war with his country if he continued to contest disputed island territories in the South China Sea with Beijing.
Duterte, who has engaged in what for the Philippines is an historical rapprochement with China, retold a conversation he had with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He said,
“I really said, ‘It’s ours. I’d like you to listen for a while.’ I said, ‘Mr. Xi Jinping, I would insist that that is ours and I will drill oil there”.
He continued to paraphrase Chinese President Xi’s response, stating,
“[Xi Jinping] replied to me, ‘We are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you… We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.
What more could I say?”
Duterte then said that he would be personally willing to risk war but that because of China’s super-power status, it would result in a massacre.
In spite of the excitable rhetoric, Duterte is essentially claiming that his decision to cooperate with China rather than openly contest the disputed South China Sea territories, is one born from pragmatism rather than ideology let alone hubris. He also reminded his audience that Vietnam finds it self in a similar position via-a-vis China.
The United States quietly fears that East Asian countries will gradual ascend to China’s claims over the South China Sea, thus taking away a key US bargaining chip that successive American administrations have used in attempts to put pressure on China.
For Philippines, this is especially important as prior to Duterte’s Presidency, few successful leaders in post-independence Manilla had challenged US hegemonic domination of the country.