Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday said he trusted China would not build anything on a disputed South China Sea shoal because he was given its “word of honor” and Beijing would not want to jeopardize a new friendship.
Duterte was commenting amid a furor in the Philippines stemming from remarks last week by the mayor in charge of China-controlled disputed islands and reefs, who said preparatory work was being planned to build several monitoring stations, including on the Scarborough Shoal.
“I was informed that they are not going to do anything at Panatag out of respect for our friendship,” he told a news conference in the early hours of Thursday, referring to the shoal by its local name.
“‘We will build nothing there’ – that was the assurance given by the Chinese government.
“They are not going to build anything … because they do not want to jeopardize our friendship”.
He said China “has a word of honor”. He did not specify when he received this assurance.
Duterte caused a stir on Sunday when he said “we cannot stop China”, when asked about the possibility of it putting radar at the shoal.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Wednesday said the reports about a monitoring station were “mistaken” and “not true”.
China’s activities in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway through which at least $5 trillion of goods passes annually, have been closely watched by the Philippines, which has seen Beijing build and arm artificial islands in its 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The Scarborough Shoal is symbolic of the Philippines’ long struggle to assert itself against China’s maritime ambitions. Located 124 miles off the Philippine coast, the rocky outcrop was a rich fishing ground for Filipinos until China’s coastguard blockaded the area in 2012.
Duterte sprang a surprise last year when he took office and opted to pursue rapprochement with Beijing after years of bitter squabbling. China’s coastguard has since allowed Filipinos to fish at the periphery of the shoal.
Duterte said he was honest with his intentions when he visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in October.
“I just want to shake your hand but since you have this animosity with America you have identified us unjustly as on the side of America,” he said, recalling the meeting.
“I said ‘I just want to trade with you and I want business because my country needs it’.”
In a barb aimed at the United States, a close military ally of the Philippines, Duterte said countries should avoid escalating tensions, because missteps could be catastrophic.
“Why do you have to go there and look for friction?”, he said. “Friction causes an explosion … then you can have war.”
He added: “It’s a very important word for all of us: Miscalculation.”
Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Hugh Lawson