Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said his nation could go to war if its soldiers were hurt in the disputed South China Sea, a top aide said Wednesday after allegations emerged that Beijing had harassed Manila’s troops in the area.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon made the comments as Duterte’s administration pushed back against criticism its response to Chinese activities in the hotly contested waters had been weak.
“Just the other night, the president said if my troops are hurt there, that could be my red line,” Esperon told reporters. “Or, if our people are hurt there at Pag-asa Island. We are not saying we are going to war, but if they oppress us that may force our hand, because we will not allow ourselves to be oppressed.”
Pag-asa, better known as Thitu, is the largest of the islands and outcrops garrisoned by Philippine troops in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. Opposition lawmaker Gary Alejano alleged at a Wednesday congressional hearing that a Chinese navy helicopter had harassed Philippine troops on Second Thomas Shoal, also held by Manila, earlier this month.
The Philippine Navy launched a rubber boat to resupply its Second Thomas Shoal base when “a chopper… hovered in a close and dangerous distance,” Alejano said, adding the helicopter’s proximity had blown seawater into the Philippine vessel.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told the hearing the Philippines had protested the incident and resolved the matter “quietly”, but refused to disclose details.
China claims most of the resources-rich sea through which $5 trillion in shipping trade passes annually, and in recent years has reclaimed reefs and shoals including some claimed by Manila.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea.
China this month deployed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands off the Philippine coast and flew nuclear-capable bombers to a base in another disputed part of the sea.
Duterte has pointedly said elsewhere he would not go to war against Beijing and hailed improving relations that led to more Chinese trade and investment.