Duterte Stakes Rare Claim, Tells China to ‘Lay Off’ Thitu Island

Ditas Lopez and Andreo Calonzo
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Duterte Stakes Rare Claim, Tells China to ‘Lay Off’ Thitu Island

(Bloomberg) -- In a rare rebuke of China, President Rodrigo Duterte told Beijing to “lay off” from the Philippines-occupied Thitu Island in South China Sea or he will order his soldiers to defend the nation’s claim with "suicide missions."

“I’m trying to tell China, Pag-Asa is ours,” Duterte said, calling Thitu Island by its local name. “So let us be friends but do not touch Pag-Asa Island and the rest. Otherwise, things would be different,” he said on Thursday night.

The president’s comments came hours after his Foreign Affairs Department said the presence of about 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu Island is “illegal” and violates Philippine sovereignty. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said on Wednesday the Philippines had filed a diplomatic protest on the latest incident.

Duterte, who pivoted the nation’s foreign policy toward China almost three years ago when he took office, has said the Philippines can’t afford to go to war against China, even after a July 2016 arbitral ruling on the sea dispute favored the Philippines. He’s been under pressure to make a stronger stance against China’s incursions in the South China Sea.

He would never allow China, which has “gobbled up the whole of China Sea” to occupy Thitu -- where the Philippines is constructing a ramp and repairing a runway, Duterte told reporters separately on Thursday. The president said he will tell his soldiers to “prepare for suicide missions” if China moves into Thitu.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have said this week the nations should settle disputes peacefully, while asserting their country’s claim over the disputed island which it calls Zhongye.

“This is not a warning; this is just a word of advice to my friends,” Duterte said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ditas Lopez in Manila at dlopez55@bloomberg.net;Andreo Calonzo in Manila at acalonzo1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Cecilia Yap at cyap19@bloomberg.net, ;Ruth Pollard at rpollard2@bloomberg.net, Clarissa Batino

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