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Duterte asserts claims but jokes PHL can be a Chinese province

Speaking before an audience that included the Chinese ambassador and Filipino-Chinese businessmen, President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday asserted the Philippines' sovereign rights over its claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte said he was ready to put his life, honor, and the presidency on the line in order to defend the country's claims in what the Philippines now calls the West Philippine Sea.

"I’ve stated it in black and blue. It has been the claim of the Republic of the Philippines na atin ‘yan... which we call before the China Sea, now the West Philippine Sea," Duterte said.

Duterte, however, maintained that going to war with China would never be an option.

"In front of the Ambassador, I’d tell you, we will insist but what would be the components of our demands and our insistence, well, we can only be diplomatic," Duterte said.

"We can only be talking on friendly and civilized terms. We cannot go there, ride in our whatever, Navy, the gray ships, the Coast Guard and start waving our rifles. We cannot do that today. It is unrealistic," he added.

Duterte joked that China should make the Philippines as one of its provinces.

"Gusto ninyo gawain niyo na lang kaming province, Fujian, Philippine province of China. Eh di wala tayong problema. Libre na lahat," he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.

"Province of the Philippines, Republic of China. The nearest is Fujian. Hayaan mo na lang ‘yung Taipei. Huwag na nating galawin ‘yan. Pagkaliit liit. Hayaan mo na. Let it float there. Makuha mo ang Philippines, wala nang problema," Duterte further said

Taipei is the capital of Taiwan, a self-governing island that China regarded as a renegade province.

Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua smiled.

"I took it as a joke," Zhao said when asked for a comment.

Duterte made the remark after recalling that Chinese President Xi Jinping had assured him that Beijing would not build anything on the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop 124 nautical miles off Palawan’s northwestern coast.

"Maniwala kayo kasi 'yan ang commitment sa akin. Si Xi Jinping mismo nagsabi and he’s a man of honor," Duterte said.

Duterte also insisted that the Benham Rise, a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau off Aurora province, belonged to the Philippines.

"So ang sabi nila, Benham or the Philippine Rise and I would insist on the Philippine Rise because that is ours period," Duterte said.

China, the world’s second biggest economy, is locked in a dispute with its neighbors including the Philippines over control of vital sea lanes, particularly the South China Sea through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually.

The United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration delivered in July 2016 a sweeping victory to the Philippines on the case it filed against China during the term of then-President Benigno Aquino III, declaring as illegal China's claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

It also declared that Beijing violated the rights of Filipinos, who were blocked by Chinese Coast Guard from fishing in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off Zambales.

Duterte, however, temporarily set aside the ruling to avoid confrontation with China, but vowed to raise it at the right time during his presidency. —NB, GMA News