Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned China that his soldiers occupying the island of Thitu in the South China Sea, which is currently surrounded by some 275 Chinese fishing militia and Coast Guard vessels.
Since January, at least 275 Chinese boats functioning as part of a maritime militia have gathered for varying lengths of time near Thitu Island, according to the Philippines’ military. Their tactics raise concerns about their “role in support of coercive objectives,” the country’s foreign ministry said Thursday. -WSJ
Laying down his 'kamikaze' threat, Duterte told Beijing during a speech to public officials: "Let us be friends, but do not touch Pag-asa Island and the rest," adding "I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch that, that’s a different story. I can tell my soldiers ‘prepare for suicide missions’"
Thitu has a small military garrison and a fishing village for some 100 civilians, according to News.com.au.
The coral outcrop sits some 500km from Palawan, the closest mainland island of the Philippines.
Six governments claim territories in the South China Sea.
The dispute has flared ever since Beijing began aggressively building remote reefs into artificial islands, and placing extensive fortifications upon them. -News.com.au
"It has been observed that Chinese vessels have been present in large numbers and for sustained and recurring periods — what is commonly referred to as ‘swarming’ tactics — raising questions about their intent as well as concerns over their role in support of coercive objectives," said the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in a statement.
China has long used its fishing fleet for what are known as "gray zone" tactics to pressure countries into relenting to its territorial claims of sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea. In a statement to the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, China said that it has sovereignty over Thitu Island - which Beijing calls Zhongye Island.
"Chinese fishing boats and fishermen’s operations in these waters have not changed much this year compared with previous years," China added.
According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) housed at Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, a handful of Chinese vessels began operating in that area since at least July 2018 - and grew in size beginning in December to as high as 95 in one day. AMTI says that the timing of the Chinese boats' arrival appears to coincide with construction activities on the island.
Following a statement last week by the DFA that the Chinese presence was "illegal" and a "clear violation of Philippine sovereignty," Duterte reminded Beijing that while the two countries have grown closer under his leadership - if they invade or threaten the island, "things would be different."
Earlier in the week, Philippine military chief General Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said Beijings incursions were becoming a serious concern.
“This is a concern not only for the military, but for other agencies as well, including the Coast Guard. We are looking for ways to address this,” Madrigal told reporters at the opening ceremonies for the annual Balikatan joint military drills between the Philippines, the US.
Last month, two former Philippine officials filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity over his government’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, which they say have deprived thousands of fishermen of their livelihood and destroyed the environment. -News.com.au
Last year before visiting Beijing, Duterte said "I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China," adopting a non-confrontational approach while seeking infrastructure funds and investments.
Of late, Duterte has come under fire for taking too soft a stance towards Beijing. Earlier this year the Trump administration said it would come to Manila's aid in the event of an "armed attack" in the South China Sea.