Duterte "Not Interested" in Confronting China on Fishing Rights

south china sea
Chinese maritime militia vessels at Whitsun Bank, March 2021 (Armed Forces of the Philippines)

Published Apr 20, 2021 6:25 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a briefing on Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made clear that his administration has no intention of taking action to confront China's maritime militia and is "not so much interested now" in the interests of Philippine fishermen. 

“I’m not so much interested now in fishing. I don’t think there’s enough fish to quarrel about,” Duterte said. If Chinese forces should challenge the Philippines' EEZ fishing rights again, he said, he might dispatch "five coastguard ships, and . . . they can play with each other, and see who's faster."

Duterte reiterated his longstanding concern that any attempt to interfere with superior Chinese forces would end badly. "If we go there to assert our jurisdiction, it will be bloody," he said. 

However, if China should independently pursue drilling for oil and gas in the Philippine EEZ without partnering with Manila, the Philippine government would dispatch "grey hull" warships in response, Duterte said. "If they start drilling oil there, I will tell China, is that part of our agreement? If that is not part of our agreement, I will also drill oil there," he said. “If they get the oil, that would be time that we should act on it."

Beijing and Manila have already signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation for offshore oil and gas E&P, and Duterte's administration has lifted a moratorium on exploration in the Philippine sector of the South China Sea as part of its economic negotiations with China. 

In March, more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels were spotted at Whitsun Reef, a submerged feature at an atoll within the Philippine EEZ. After multiple protests from Manila, the majority departed; as of last week, at least half a dozen remained, along with a China Coast Guard cutter.

Previous Chinese island occupation efforts in the region have started with civilian operations, followed by large-scale dredging, land reclamation, airbase construction and installation of military equipment, including air defense radar and missile systems.