MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Not under his watch will China be able to occupy Pag-asa Island, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared.
But asked how he would deal with reports that Chinese militia vessels have been spotted near the island as part of intimidation tactics, the Chief Executive said he would have to reach a "compromise" with Beijing.
"No, the Pag-asa Island belongs to us. Of course China would never do that. I assure you. Unless China wants a war with us. Hindi ako papayag kung pati yung Pag-asa i-occupy nila (I won't allow it if they occupy even Pag-asa)," he said on Thursday, April 4, in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.
Asked what he would do about the Chinese vessels surrounding the island, Duterte repeated his assertion that the Philippines' military arsenal is no match against China's. At the moment, his government has no choice but to find a "compromise" with China, he said.
"We drive them away by force, can we do that? Unless we want to commit suicide. If you go to war, the first step of China would be to launch its missile. In 7 minutes, it will land in Manila. We go into a compromise for the time being because if we go to war, if there is a violent conflict, we would never win and I would suffer beyond imagination," said Duterte.
Duterte's red line, however, is if China arrests or kills Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea.
"I assure you, if they kill or arrest people there who are Filipino then that would be the time when we would decide on what to do," he said without elaborating.
Duterte added during a PDP-Laban rally , "This is not a warning, this is a word of advice to my friend [China]. Nakikiusap ako, (I'm asking you,) I will not plead or beg but I'm just telling you lay off the Pag-Asa [Island] because may mga sundalo ako dyan (we have soldiers there). Pag yan ginalaw niyo, ibang istorya ito. (If you mess with that, it's a different story.) [I will tell my soldiers] Prepare for suicide missions."
At the start of the interview, however, Duterte, commander in chief of the Philippine military, said he was not aware of Chinese vessels spotted near Pag-asa Island.
It was the military's Western Command that said that 275 Chinese vessels were spotted near the West Philippine Sea island from January to March this year.
The Department of Foreign Affairs slammed the presence of these ships as "illegal" and a "clear violation of Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction."
Pag-asa Island is the seat of power of the Kalayaan Group of Islands, also known as the Spratlys, in the West Philippine Sea.
China, which claims the West Philippine Sea through its "9-dash line" invalidated by the 2016 Hague ruling, opposed the Philippines' plans to repair facilities in the island.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.