Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Monday (April 19) he was prepared to send his military ships in the South China Sea to "stake a claim" over oil and mineral resources in the disputed part of the strategic waterway.
With some critics complaining Duterte had gone soft by refusing to push Beijing to comply with an arbitration ruling, he said the public can be assured he would assert the country's claims to resources like oil and minerals in the South China Sea.
"I'm not so much interested now in fishing. I don't think there's enough fish to quarrel about. But when we start to mine, when we start to get whatever it is in the bowels of the China Sea, our oil, by that time I will send my grey ships there to stake a claim," Duterte said in a late-night public address.
"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 even as he reiterated he wanted to remain friends with Beijing.
Duterte has sought to build an alliance with China and has been reluctant to confront its leadership, having been promised billions of dollars of loans and investments, much of which has yet to materialize, frustrating nationalists.
He has repeatedly said the Philippines was powerless to stop China, and that challenging its activities could risk a war his country would lose.
The firebrand leader said there was no way for the Philippines to enforce "without any bloodshed" a landmark 2016 arbitral ruling that clarified the Philippines sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Philippines has filed several diplomatic protests against China's actions in the South China Sea, with the latest accusing its giant neighbor of undertaking illegal fishing and massing more than 240 boats within its territorial waters.