Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is loudly warning China to keep its distance from an island in the South China Sea that is considered by Manila to be an official municipality of the Philippines. Thitu Island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970. It is the second largest of the non-artificial islands in the Spratly chain, and has long been envied by China. Duterte has threatened to send his military troops on a ‘suicide mission’ if Chinese pressure around the island does not ease, or if Beijing makes a move to occupy it.
According to the Philippine military, hundreds of Chinese vessels from fishing boats, to Coast Guard cutters have swarmed the island. Yesterday the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the presence of the Chinese ships a ‘clear violation of Philippine sovereignty.’ China’s maritime presence around Thitu Island has been consistent.
Despite the warning, Duterte has maintained a friendly tone towards China. In the same campaign speech where he spoke of the Thitu Island situation, the president stated his belief that China ‘just wants to be friends with us.’ In a sharp contrast to Duterte’s words, his military chiefs are growing more concerned with Chinese moves in the South China Sea. Duterte’s desire to curry favor from the United States and China simultaneously continues, and he remains either unconcerned with, or oblivious to the blowback his ‘on again-off again’ stance with China is creating.
The South China Sea has become alarmingly tense lately with the violation of the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, and continuing US-led Freedom of Navigation exercises. In an alarmingly dangerous world, it will take little for a major conflict to brew up. The Thitu Island situation acts as the latest potential flashpoint in a region already filled with them.