Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is threatening war again with China, his latest in a series of rhetorical broadsides against Beijing’s perceived as expansionist activities in the contested South China Sea.

On August 21, Durterte warned China against unilaterally drilling for oil in Philippine-claimed areas of the sea, saying if Beijing proceeded with the exploitation it could lead to war, local media reported.

If you monopolize [the oil], there will be trouble,” Duterte said. “That’s where we’re going to have differences. That’s where you’ll see [Interior Secretary Eduardo] Año bring a machete there and cut down the Chinese,” the Philippine Inquirer newspaper quoted him as saying.

In recent weeks, the Filipino leader has used increasingly strident language towards Beijing on the South China Sea disputes.

In an August 15 speech to the local Filipino business community, Duterte called on China to “temper” its behavior in the South China Sea, emphasizing that “the right of innocent passage is guaranteed” under international law.

He reminded China that countries “do not need any permission to sail through the open seas.” Duterte’s latest threat follows on his government’s announcement in late May of “three red lines” that if China crossed would result in war.

Those red lines, announced by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, include any Chinese construction on the contested Scarborough Shoal, disruption of supplies to the Philippine-held Thitu island in the Spratly chain of islands, and any unilateral Chinese exploitation of resources in contested South China Sea areas.

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Known for his Beijing-leaning policy, Duterte’s unusually aggressive remarks come on the heels of an announcement by Carlito Galvez Jr, the Chief of Staff of the powerful Armed Forces of the Philippines, that China routinely harasses Philippine patrol missions in the Spratly island chain on a near daily basis.

Significantly, the Philippine president’s re-calibrated language vis-à-vis China has gone hand-in-hand with gradually recovering security cooperation with the United States, which recently offered Manila more explicit guarantees of support in the South China Sea disputes.

Duterte has shown particular sensitivity and deference to the Philippine defense establishment, which has maintained a broadly skeptical position on China’s ambitions and intentions, and has sought to maintain robust ties with its traditional ally America.

A recent BBC report said that Chinese military detachments guarding artificially created islands in the South China Sea have adopted threatening language towards Philippine patrol missions in the area.

“Philippine military aircraft! I’m warning you again. Leave immediately or you will bear responsibility for all the consequences!” Chinese military personnel said in one radio message to their Filipino counterparts, according to the BBC.

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a Chinese war vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

“I told you we are not prepared to go to war with you, so why do you have to say those nasty words?” Duterte asked in an August 17 speech from his hometown of Davao. “There’s no need for that. We are your friends.”

On August 21, the tough-talking leader said that he would “one day” assert the mid-2016 award the Philippines won over China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, a decision which nullified the legality of China’s wide-reaching claims in the South China Sea.  Duterte recognized that asserting the award would lead to war with China and that any such conflict would be a “massacre.”

Concerned about a possible backlash over his until now cozy relations with Beijing, Duterte has recently lavished the military with praise and expanded budgets and benefits.

In a recent speech, a visibly exasperated Duterte, who has been slipping in and out of public view amid concerns over his health, even suggested stepping down to create a military junta to deal with the country’s rising security challenges.

The Philippine president is also likely responding to growing public clamor for a tougher stance against China’s relentless reclamation and militarization activities in Philippine-claimed areas, including within its exclusive economic zone.

Recent opinion surveys show that a vast majority of Filipinos want Duterte to assert Philippine sovereign rights and take back Manila-claimed land features now occupied by China, including the contested Scarborough Shoal. Beijing took administrative control of the sea feature after a months-long naval stand-off in 2012.

A protester holds a placard during a rally coinciding the Philippines' 120th Independence Day at the Chinese consulate in Manila, Philippines on Tuesday, 12 June 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/NurPhoto/ Richard James Mendoza
A protester holds a placard during a rally at the Chinese consulate in Manila, June 2018. Photo: AFP Forum/NurPhoto/ Richard James Mendoza

China’s foreign ministry rebuked Duterte’s comments, reiterating its “right to take necessary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that deliberately get close to or make incursions into the air and waters near China’s relevant islands.”

Beijing accused the Philippine patrols of engaging in “provocative actions that threaten the security of Chinese personnel stationed there.” It also urged the Philippines “to meet China halfway, and jointly protect the present good situation that has not come easily in the South China Sea,” without providing further explanation.

The war of words coincided with the recent high-profile visit to Manila of US Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver, who reassured his Filipino counterparts that “there should be no misunderstanding or lack of clarity on the spirit and the nature of our commitment” to the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

When asked whether the US would come to the Philippines’ defense in the event of a conflict in the South China Sea, Schriver clarified that Washington will be a “good ally” and “[w]e’ll help the Philippines respond accordingly,” without providing further details.

He did make clear that the Donald Trump administration will “not allow [China] to rewrite the rules of the road or change international law” through aggressive actions and militarization of the disputed land features.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) standing beside missile  tubes on deck while touring the guided missile frigate Changchun berthed at the Davao international port on May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) standing beside missile tubes on deck while touring China’s guided missile frigate Changchun berthed at the Davao international port, May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Simeon Celi

The Trump administration is also considering Duterte’s request for the return of the highly symbolic Balangiga bells, which was taken as a war trophy by occupying American forces during the early 20th century colonization period.

“We welcome this development as we look forward to continue working with the United States government in paving the way for the return of the bells to the Philippines,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

He expressed Manila’s appreciation of Washington’s goodwill towards healing an important historical wound, one which has been at the core of Duterte’s frequent public criticism of the Philippines’ former colonial occupier.

Despite warming Philippine-US relations, Duterte was quick to chide the Pentagon for criticizing his plans to purchase Russian submarines and advanced weaponries that could be deployed to bolster its position in the South China Sea disputes.

“Why did you not stop the other countries in Asia? Why are you stopping us? Who are you to warn us?” Duterte lashed out at the visiting American official’s call for Manila to reconsider purchasing Russian wares.

Duterte sees the procurement as part of his “independent” foreign policy that balances great power relations and diversifies the country’s weapons supplies.

“Is that the way you treat an ally and you want us to stay with you for all time?” Duterte complained, emphasizing how other Southeast Asian countries including Vietnam have purchased Russian submarines without Washington making a complaint.