By Camille Diola
MANILA, Philippines — President Rodrigo Duterte's foreign policy toward China, marked by his flip-flopping remarks on maritime concerns over the South China Sea and Benham Rise, still baffles observers.
On Sunday, Duterte had an evidently defeatist reaction to reports that China is building a monitoring station on Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, a feature acknowledged by last year's arbitral tribunal ruling as a common fishing ground. The Philippines also considers the area part of Zambales province.
"We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them," Duterte said at a news conference in Davao City. "So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China?"
The Department of National Defense (DND) had several times expressed concern over Chinese activities in the disputed waters and recently revealed that it has observed Sino survey vessels in Benham Rise, a vast, potentially resource-rich undersea plateau that extends the Philippines' continental shelf.
Duterte, on the other hand, was more dismissive, claiming that the government was apprised of China's plan to conduct research in the newly claimed area. But the DND and the Department of Foreign Affairs said they are not aware of such an agreement.
For foreign affairs analyst Richard Heydarian of the De La Salle University, there is a disparity between the policy gleaned from Duterte's rhetoric and that practiced by concerned executive departments.
"There are clearly blatant gaps here," Heydarian told Philstar.com in an email. "Especially between Duterte's highly cordial if not sentimental statements towards China and its supposed generosity and love for the Philippines, on one hand, and more nuanced and realistic concerns raised by his defense and foreign ministry officials, who are clearly troubled by China's maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and Benham Rise, on the other."
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