Duterte talks up war with China over oil and gas. Here's why it's not a great idea.

“The president has declared that if anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea-South China Sea, he will go to war.”

by David Gilbert
May 29 2018, 11:09am

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President Rodrigo Duterte is ready to go to war with China if Beijing crosses a “red line” over oil and natural gas rights in the South China Sea, Philippines Foreign Minister Alan Peter Cayetano said in a speech Monday.

“Nobody can extract natural resources there on their own,” Cayetano said during a flag raising ceremony in Pasay City. “The president has declared that if anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea-South China Sea, he will go to war.”

Duterte had previously been criticized for his reticence to confront China on the issue, so the speech could mark a shift in policy.

Manilla has been seeking a joint exploration agreement with Beijing for oil and natural gas reserves in their claimed territory.

READ: Duterte just threatened to arrest an International Criminal Court prosecutor

As well as worries over China stealing the reserves, there has been growing concern about Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, including the installation of missile defense systems on islands the country has artificially constructed as a way to bolster its claims to the disputed waters.

In recent weeks, Beijing reportedly landed bombers on the islands for the first time.

Cayetano’s speech comes days after the U.S. Navy sailed two warships within 12 nautical miles of China's artificial islands in the Paracels, part of regular freedom of navigation exercises.

Since taking power almost two years ago, Duterte has spoken in respectful tones about Beijing; in April he publicly declared that he “loved” President Xi Jinping.

However, critics claim Duterte should hold China to account after a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague found that most of China’s claims to the South China Sea were illegal under international maritime law.

Now Duterte could be ready to take a much harder line with Xi.

Unfortunately for Duterte, a war with China would almost certainly end badly for the Philippines. Here's why:

  • Spending: Beijing spends $215 billion a year on its military. Manila spends $3 billion.
  • Forces: China’s armed forces number 2.3 million people. The Philippines would be able to muster a total of just 125,000 should war break out.
  • Hardware: China has more than 9,000 tanks and nearly 5,000 armored fighting vehicles. The Philippines doesn’t have a single tank and just 672 armored fighting vehicles.
  • Aircraft: China has a total of over 3,700 aircraft compared to the Philippines’ 221.
  • Navy: Crucially for a what would likely be a war on water, the Philippines total naval force is 132 ships. China has a fleet of 749 destroyers, aircraft carriers, and submarines.

Cover image: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reviews the honor guard during the 120th Philippine navy anniversary celebration in Manila on May 22, 2018. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

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oil and gas
South China Sea
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