South China Sea
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, May 21, 2015. Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says that the United States, if drawn into any conflict in the South China Sea, would “take advantage” of the situation at the expense of the Philippines causing it to spiral out of control.

The president made the remarks in a taped interview with Russia Today that aired on Friday afternoon. During the interview he defended his stance of nonaggression against China, which claims the entirety of the South China Sea, a claim that has led to many skirmishes with neighboring Asian countries with exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of their own that China has encroached upon.

Duterte said, “It would be a reckless move if I send out just like Vietnam small vessels only to get a bloody nose at the end of the day. The response might not be that contained if I get to move because of the so many American ships here. They might just want to take advantage and make a pretext that they are defending the Philippines, and it will go beyond our control."

The reference to Vietnam was to the more aggressive action the nation has taken when China enters its EEZ to probe for gas and oil under the sea waters. Vietnam recently deployed 50 ships to protect the sovereignty of its borders claiming China’s interference was illegal according to the Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS.

Duterte has taken a more restrained stance with China deploying vessels near the Spratly Islands inside the Philippines EEZ. In 2019, he even offered to set aside the 2016 arbitral ruling made by the Permanent Court of Appeals (PCA) in The Hague that favored the archipelago of over 7000 islands over the Communist giant.

The Philippines and the U.S. remain strong allies dating back to the early part of the 20th century. Both countries suffered at the hands of Japan during World War II before prevailing. The Philippines declared independence in 1946 but has depended on the USA for decades for defense and economic help. The USA has no claims in the South China Sea but maintains a strong military presence in the waters to presumably protect international waterways and UNCLOS.

Duterte warming up to China and Russia may be in part to what he considers meddling by the U.S. into his controversial war on drugs. He said in the Russian interview that Moscow and Beijing “respect the sovereignty of the country,” unlike the United States, which he said was “totally lacking” in respect for other nations’ sovereignty.

He went on to accuse the U.S. of treating the Philippines as a “vassal state” and a “backward country” apparently stuck in medieval times that is “incapable of dispensing justice.”