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Rodrigo Duterte’s love affair with China could be coming to an end after the Philippine president warned Beijing to withdraw hundreds of vessels from a Manila-held island in the South China Sea — or he would send his troops on a “suicide mission.”
Duterte has long sought deeper economic and diplomatic ties with the Asian superpower, but after more than 200 Chinese vessels swarmed the island of Pagasa in recent months, Duterte issued a warning to Beijing not to go any further.
“Let us be friends, but do not touch Pagasa Island and the rest,” Duterte said during a campaign rally in Peurto Princesa City. “If you make moves there, that's a different story. I will tell my soldiers to prepare for a suicide mission.”
The Philippines military has described the hundreds of boats as “suspected maritime militia” and the Department of Foreign Affairs called the Chinese ships' presence a violation of Philippine sovereignty.
"Such actions, when not repudiated by the Chinese government, are deemed to have been adopted by it," the department said in a statement.
Duterte’s rare rebuke of Beijing follows years of rapprochement with China after the strongman leader made a dramatic pivot away from U.S. support in 2016.
But the South China Sea has been a sticking point for the Philippine leader. In May last year, Duterte said he was willing to go to war with China over oil and natural gas rights. In August, there were more signs of a strained relationship between Manila and Beijing when Duterte hit out again at China’s actions in the region.
But for all his talk of war and “suicide missions,” Duterte is well aware that there would be only one winner in any military conflict with China, which spends $215 billion a year on its military compared to Manila’s $3 billion.
The South China Sea is one of the most contentious — and valuable — pieces of maritime real estate in the world, with $4.5 trillion worth of trading passing through its busy shipping lanes each year. The area also contains notable oil and gas deposits as well as rich fishing grounds.
China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all stake claims to its islands, reefs and waterways, but in recent years China’s aggressive island-building efforts in the region have caused serious concern among western governments.
The U.S. is troubled by “any aggressive activity by any country in the South China Sea, in this case, China. We see that as of concern,” Joseph Felter, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, told reporters in Bangkok Friday.
“It seems to be somewhat aggressive and provocative and we feel that they’re unnecessary and unwarranted,” Felter added.
Cover Image: President Rodrigo Duterte addresses police force to mark the 117th Philippine National Police Service anniversary Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)