"I cannot afford at this time to go to war. I cannot go to a battle which I cannot win and would only result in the destruction and probably a lot of losses for our Armed Forces," said Duterte on Tuesday, May 22.
He was giving a speech at the anniversary of the Philippine Navy, a branch of the military closely involved in defending Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte reassured the Navy that if he had his way, he would assert the country's claim to the West Philippine Sea, a claim being challenged by China even after a landmark international ruling affirmed it.
"Ako, gusto ko (Me, I want to). I really want to do something to assert," said Duterte.
He also spoke of his "desire to defend, but at the same time, not to make any move that would be destructive to the nation."
The Philippine President even said that he prefers the "violent" option but that he isn't prepared to take this route.
"In my simple calculation, I would have taken a stronger but probably a more violent way of doing it and I said, in my own estimation, it will be a great loss to the nation," he said.
Options other than war
Various experts have reiterated that war and "subservience" to China are not the only options open to Duterte. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war)
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, for example, called on the government to file a diplomatic protest against China. (READ: Talk to China or go to war? 'False option,' Carpio says)
Del Rosario also said one step is for the Philippines to improve its defense posture and revisit its foreign policy.