KEY POINTS

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte responded to criticisms about his unwillingness to act against Beijing over contested areas  
  • He said their ability to wage war against the communist superpower is insufficient financially and in numbers of arms and troops
  • However, Duterte’s critics said they are not calling for war with China

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his country could not afford to go to war against China in the South China Sea as he responded to critics of his unwillingness to act against Beijing over contested areas in the West Philippine and South China Seas.  

CNN Philippines reported Duterte, speaking at his fifth State of the Nation Address on Monday said, "[Translated] So what can we do? We have to go to war. And I cannot afford it. Maybe some other President can, but I cannot. I am inutile (useless) in that aspect, I am telling you and I am willing to admit it. I am really inutile about that. I cannot do anything."

Duterte continued but veered away from his prepared speech. "Alam mo (You know), unless we are prepared to go to war, I would suggest that we better just call off and treat this, I said, with diplomatic endeavors."

Duterte said the archipelago’s capability to wage a military conflict against the communist superpower is insufficient financially and in numbers of arms and troops. "China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms; we do not have it. So, it's simple as that," he said.

One thing favoring the Philippines is that the rights to the Chinese-occupied areas are viewed by the international community as belonging to Manila. A 2016 ruling by the United Nation's Permanent Court of Arbitration recognized the Philippines' sovereign rights to some areas within its exclusive economic zone.

The ruling has allowed Duterte some diplomatic leverage with China in negotiations over the resource-rich waters. China, however, has rejected the ruling and claims the bulk of the South China Sea under its Nine-Dash Line that only it (and possibly Taiwan) recognizes.

Duterte’s critics say they are not calling for war with China. Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a virtual conference that holding China accountable for its "atrocities" and incursions in the West Philippine Sea is not tantamount to waging a war.

Rosario is also asking the Duterte government to raise the issue in September at the U.N. General Assembly. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddyboy" Locsin, a Duterte supporter, rejected his proposal, repeating an earlier statement that the Philippines and China have "agreed to disagree" on the matter.

Another opinion was voiced Monday by Filipino political scientist and analyst Julio Teehankee to CNN Philippines. "It was a big puzzle especially for a president who projects a strongman image. If he had given the same bluster he demonstrated this afternoon towards Senator (Franklin) Drilon and towards the Chinese in regard to the West Philippine Sea, I am sure we will be better off," Teehankee said.  

Teehankee called the president’s words a "surrender" to China, saying that other countries with less military capacity than China continue to assert their rights.

"It’s actually disheartening because as we all know, the president is supposed to be our chief foreign policymaker and our chief cheerleader in the international arena," he added. 

President Rodrigo Duterte President Rodrigo Duterte Photo: AFP / Ted ALJIBE