MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte said he would be willing to "go to war" to defend Benham (Philippine) Rise and that he would be first to take a boat to the continental shelf to guard it.
"Hindi ako papayag. And it will mean war. Nandoon na 'yung Marines, huwag kayo matakot. Kasama ako doon, sabay tayo sa barko," said Duterte on Thursday, March 1, during the National SWAT Challenge in Davao City.
(I will not allow it. And it will mean war. The Marines are there, don't be scared. I'll join them, I'll ride on the boat with them.)
"We will never agree to an insult like that na just because ganito lang tayo (we are just at this level) – you start to fuck with the areas there. I'll go to war," said Duterte.
He even said he would be willing to die to defend Benham Rise.
"Do not mess with us because we would not allow it. If it's time to go to heaven, so be it. Huwag kayo matakot, mauna ako doon (Don't be scared. I'll be the first one there)," said the Philippine leader. (READ: Gov't admits China surveyed Benham Rise without permit)
But in the same speech, Duterte told his audience of police not to believe his remarks during the campaign period that he would take a jetski to defend islands in the West Philippine Sea from China.
"'Yung sabi ko mag jetski ako sa China, kalokohan 'yun (When I said I would take a jetski, that's nonsense)," said the President, eliciting chuckles from the audience.
Clarification from Malacañang: On Thursday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque sent reporters a message saying Duterte wanted to clarify that his remarks about war over Benham Rise are "not directed at China."
"China has always recognized that we have sovereign rights over the area," said Roque. (READ: Philippines rejects Chinese names for Benham Rise features)
Why it matters: Duterte claimed he's willing to go to war over Benham Rise but has repeatedly said in the past that he can't do the same over the West Philippine Sea.
"I hope you understand that because I cannot afford to go to war. You know, I know that it would end up in a massacre," said Duterte back in November 2017. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war)
China has shown interest in Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare continental shelf said to be rich in mineral resources. China has also sought to claim the West Philippine Sea through its 9-dash line which was declared invalid by an international court in The Hague in 2016.
Malacañang has insisted that China is not claiming Benham Rise. Duterte maintains it belongs to the Philippines even as maritime law experts say the country doesn't "own" the area but has sovereign rights over it. – Rappler.com
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.