Philippines' Duterte Threatens War in South China Sea If Troops Are Harmed

Two members of President Rodrigo Duterte's government have discussed the possibility of war in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where China has built several man-made islands to strengthen its territorial claims and equipped them with military facilities.

Duterte's national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that the Philippines will always pursue diplomacy to defuse tensions, but that it would also be prepared to enter a conflict should their military forces be provoked or hurt. "The other night, the president said if his troops are harmed, that could be his red line," Esperon told reporters on Wednesday, quoted in Reuters.

The waters surrounding the Spratly Islands, an archipelago consisting of more than 100 small islands or reefs around 500 miles from China's coast, see the presence of various military contingents from China, but also from Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, all countries that make territorial claims to the area, along with Brunei, which claims it as part of its exclusive economic area.

China has however become increasingly aggressive in asserting sovereignty over the area, most recently landing H-6K nuclear-capable bombers to its artificial islands as part of a military drill training for a "battle for the South China Sea." Vietnam issued an official protest at the move, while Duterte has remained largely silent, drawing criticism from critics and left-wing groups.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he gives a speech during the Armed Forces of the Philippines change of command ceremony in Camp Aguinaldo in Manila on April 18. The country would go to war if Filipino soldiers in the South China Sea were harmed, Duterte's national security adviser said on May 30. Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images

Esperon's remarks seemed concerned with dispelling the idea of Duterte as a weak, meek leader—one that doesn't sit well with the Philippine president, who has cultivated a reputation as a strongman. "We are not saying we are going to war, but if they oppress us that may force our hand, because we will not allow ourselves to be oppressed," Esperon said, quoted in Agence France-Press.

His statements come only a few days after Duterte's foreign minister Alan Peter Cayetano raised the prospect of war over resources in the waters, which are rich fishing grounds that may also host lucrative oil and gas deposits. "If anyone gets the natural resources in the Western Philippines Sea, South China Sea, he will go to war. He said, 'Whatever happens, happens.' He will go to war," Cayetano said in a speech on Monday quoted in CNN, referring to Duterte.

But speaking at a hearing focusing on the South China Sea on Wednesday at the legislative assembly, former Philippine maritime officer Rep. Gary Alejano revealed just how quiet the government's been in dealing with China in the disputed waters. He mentioned an incident that took place on May 11, in which Chinese ships deployed a helicopter that flew "dangerously close" to a Philippine navy ship, the Associated Press reported. Alejano described the Chinese helicopter as flying to the Philippine vessel "so close that seawater splash entered the rubber boat."

"If the Duterte administration wants the public to trust its approach in the West Philippine Sea, certain details meant for public consumption should be released," he added, referring to the South China Sea by the name used in the Philippines and asking the government to be more transparent in disclosing such incidents.

Duterte's predecessors have fought China's claims to the waters, bringing a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled against Beijing asserting sovereignty over areas contested by Manila in 2016. Duterte has instead chosen a more reconciliatory approach to Beijing, eager to collaborate with China on investment, trade and infrastructure projects to decrease U.S. influence in the Philippines, a former American colony.