MANILA -- President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday played up the gains of his China-friendly foreign policy and renewed criticism of the U.S. during a joint session of parliament.
At the opening of the 17th congress, Duterte said agreeing to China's demands to resolve a territorial dispute in the South China Sea through dialogue had reduced tension in the contested waters, which are a vital international trade route rich in marine resources.
"We have cultivated warmer relations with China through bilateral dialogues and other mechanisms leading to easing of tensions between the two countries and improved the negotiating environment on the West Philippine Sea," he said, using the Philippine name for part of the South China Sea.
Duterte has opted not to invoke a tribunal decision last year by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands in favor of the Philippines. The court rejected China's unilateral claim to almost the entire South China Sea. Duterte's soft response has been rewarded with major promises of aid from China.
"Thank you for your help," he said, addressing Zhao Jianhua, China's ambassador to Manila who was among diplomats listening to Duterte speak. The president then brought up the infamous Balangiga massacre in 1901 at the height of Philippine-American conflict. Guerrillas killed some 48 U.S. soldiers in Balangiga, a town in Samar in the central Philippines. The incident has been described as the worst single defeat in the country for the U.S. In retribution, Gen. Jacob Smith ordered the execution of everyone over ten, and the reduction of the town to a "howling wilderness". Balangiga's church bells, which the guerrillas used to signal the attack, were taken as booty.
"Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebears who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives," Duterte said. Two of the bells are on display at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming, and the third is in a military museum at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea.
"Give us back those Balangiga bells," Duterte demanded. "They are ours -- they belong to the Philippines, they are part of our national heritage." His listeners included lawmakers, officials, and diplomats, including Ambassador Kim Sung of the U.S.
Duterte also lashed out again at Barack Obama who while president criticized Duterte's war on drugs. Over the past 13 months, thousands of alleged drug suspects have been killed by police and vigilantes. "Despite international and local pressures, the fight will not stop until those who deal in [drugs] understand that they have to cease," said Duterte. "They have to stop because the alternatives are either jail or hell."
Duterte is chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this year, and has said he is determined to promote the national interest on the international stage.
"We will strengthen and seek partnership with those who share our values," Duterte said, as the state broadcaster aired photographs of him with China's President Xi Jinping. "We will engage nations with full respect for the rule of law, sovereign equality and [...] non-interference," he said. "These are the principles that we are upholding as we advance throughout this year."
Duterte's two-hour speech included off-the-cuff digressions on the government's war on crime and stalled peace talks with communists. He also addressed the business community, warning mining companies to rehabilitate excavated areas. "Or I will tax you to death," he said.
The president directed Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez to accept 25 billion pesos tax ($493.2 million) in a settlement with local cigarette maker Mighty Corp., for which Japan Tobacco has bid 45 billion pesos. This would be the largest single tax settlement in the Philippines to date.
Over the weekend, Duterte secured congressional approval to extend martial law in Mindanao until Dec. 31. He gave no specific details on government plans for Marawi, a Muslim majority city where government forces have spent two months fighting militants with links to Islamic State.
The battle for Marawi has already claimed nearly 600 lives. Duterte did reveal that the government plans to bolster the military with 40,000 recruits, and announced that peace talks with communist rebels are at an end.