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International relations

Duterte says South China Sea dispute is 'delicate balancing act'

Philippine leader uses key national address to defend maritime policy

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during his fourth State of the Nation Address at the Philippine Congress in Metro Manila on Monday.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is treading carefully for once.

Keen to keep Chinese money rolling into his country despite domestic pressure over his overtures toward Beijing, Duterte said Monday he is performing a "delicate balancing act" on the South China Sea territorial dispute with China.

The president used an annual national address at Congress to defend his policy on the waterway -- one of the few issues his political opponents have been able to attack him over.

"The West Philippine Sea is ours," he said in the televised speech, using the term to assert Philippine sovereignty in the areas it claims. "But we have to temper the times and the realities we face today."

At a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in April, Duterte raised Manila's 2016 arbitration victory that invalidated China's claims in the sea, but Xi reiterated that his government did not recognize the decision. The dispute was amplified recently when a Chinese vessel sank a Philippine fishing boat in the Reed Bank, an area in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone. Duterte then triggered a domestic backlash by saying it was "a little maritime" incident.

Duterte said Monday that Xi previously hinted at "trouble" in the South China Sea if the Philippines insisted on its claim. He said he could not go to war with China, a militarily powerful neighbor that has pledged billions of dollar worth of investments.

"If I send the marines to drive away Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you not one of them will come home alive," he said. "Even if I send my five new frigates there... they will be wiped out because there are already guided missiles in that island, and the fastest can reach Manila in seven minutes."

"The avoidance of conflict -- armed conflict and protection of our territorial waters and natural resources compel us to perform a delicate balancing act," Duterte said.

Duterte also suggested that countries, including China, have traditional fishing rights in the South China Sea.

"There is a time to -- for everything. A time to negotiate and a time to quarrel with your enemy, with your political opponents, with your wife," he said. "And a time to antagonize and a time to make peace and a time to go to war, and a time to live and a time to die."

Separately, Duterte lamented the rampant corruption in the government and outlined his legislative priorities for the remainder of his term until 2022. These included tax reforms, the restoration of the death penalty for drug offenders and dealers, and the revival of mandatory military service for adolescents.

He also made a snide comment about pending crimes against humanity charges lodged against him at the International Criminal Court over his deadly drug war.

"If you can provide me with a good comfortable cell -- heated during winter time -- I want to go," Duterte said.

Researcher Ella Herminio contributed to this report.

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