The president of the Philippines criticized America Thursday for its past inaction in the South China Sea but warned current moves to challenge China could start a war.
“Why did you not, the first instance, go to Chinese working there, building structures there?” asked President Rodrigo Duterte. “Why did you not reprimand them? Why did you not send five aircraft carriers? You had to wait for the problem to ripen to an international issue involving, this time, so many countries.”
“You could have cut the problem in the bud had you taken a decisive action,” he added.
During the Obama administration, China began an extensive land reclamation program in the South China Sea, and since then, China has reclaimed several thousand acres of land. Furthermore, China has constructed numerous military outposts in the Paracel and Spratly Islands and armed them with point-defense systems and surface-to-air missile systems.
The previous White House was hesitant to react in the early stages.
“The U.S. Navy should launch freedom of navigation operations as soon as possible, and before China fully militarizes the ‘islands,’ to establish the principle that we consider this to be international waters,” Stuart Eizenstat, a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Department of Defense adviser, told Hillary Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan in a leaked email. “We were told that there is a broad consensus to do so, but it is being held-up at the highest levels of the White House.”
“A delay on ‘freedom of navigation’ operations is hurting U.S. standing in the region,” Eizenstat added, arguing, “It will become more difficult and confrontational to launch freedom of navigation operations after China has militarized the newly-built islands.”
One month after Eizenstat’s email, the Obama administration conducted its first South China Sea freedom of navigation operation challenging China’s vast claims to the region. Prior to this first operation, which was carried out in late 2015, the administration largely limited its response to diplomatic rhetoric calling for a cessation of provocations.
While Duterte is displeased by America’s limited response in the past, he is also concerned that current U.S. efforts to challenge China could start a war.
“You go there in the pretense of challenging them,” he explained, “One single solitary shot, it could lead to an explosion and it could lead to a war and it will be a slaughter.”
Duterte takes any opportunity to attack the U.S., yet he regularly gives China, a former rival, a pass. Early in his administration, he talked tough on China, but he has since adapted a stance that encourages appeasement. The defense ministry, however, remains suspicious of China’s ambitions.
“We cannot stop China from doing its thing,” the president admitted over the weekend. “What do you want me to do? Declare war on China?” he asked. “I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we will be a destroyed nation.”
Duterte restated his position Thursday, stating, “We cannot stop them because they are building with their mind fixed that they own the place. China will go to war.”
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