Duterte: Retaking West Philippine Sea was never a campaign promise

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 4) - President Rodrigo Duterte emphasized on Monday he never promised to retake the West Philippine Sea from China when he sought the country’s top post in 2016.

“I, never in my campaign as president, promised the people that I would retake the West Philippine Sea. I did not promise that I would pressure China,” Duterte said during his weekly national address. “I never mentioned about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter.”

The President’s statement was contrary to his controversial remark during the 2016 elections, where he said he would ride a jet ski to plant a Philippine flag on man-made islands occupied by China. 

During the CNN Philippines Town Hall meeting in February 2016, Duterte mentioned he would stop the expansion of China in the West Philippine Sea.

“If I will be in the presidency for two years, walang nangyayari (and if there’s nothing happening), China keeps on expanding, I will tell them you better stop them because that is ours,” he said.

Days before he assumed the presidency in June 2016, Duterte stated he would not surrender the country's rights over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

In his latest national address on Monday, Duterte stressed that Beijing remains the country’s benefactor.

“Just because we have a conflict with China doesn't mean we have to be rude and disrespectful. As a matter of fact, we have many things to thank China for— the help in the past and itong mga tulong nila ngayon (their help now),” the President said.

Duterte was referring to Beijing’s involvement in some of the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure projects and Manila’s COVID-19 pandemic response, such as the provision of test kits and Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines, which comprise the largest bulk of the country’s present vaccine supply.

In his speech, Duterte appealed to China to let Filipino fishermen fish “in peace” in the disputed waters.

“Kindly let our fishermen to fish in peace. There is no reason for trouble. If there is one brewing, we can talk immediately to solve the problem,” he said.

Duterte also took the opportunity to call out again former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, whom he claimed were the ones who handed over the West Philippine Sea to China. He particularly mentioned the Panatag Shoal standoff in 2012, when a Philippine Navy surveillance ship first spotted a group of Chinese fishing vessels in the area.

“Our armed forces were ready to die for the country. Kayong mga walang b****, nasa opisina at puro papel ang hinahawakan (While you two who don’t have any balls, you’re just in the office and just handling papers),” said Duterte.

Duterte’s remark was an apparent reaction to Del Rosario’s open letter made public on Sunday where he highlighted the importance of asserting the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea.

Manila won a landmark arbitral case against Beijing in 2016, which invalidated the Asian giant’s claims in the South China Sea that included islands and territories within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone