The Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has cancelled a planned visit to an island the Philippines claims in the disputed South China Sea, after Beijing warned him against the visit.
The brash Philippine leader last week announced his plan to raise the Philippine flag in the island of Thitu, in the Spratlys chain, and fortify it with barracks, setting off alarm bells.
“Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag,” Duterte said in a speech before the Filipino community in Riyadh late Wednesday.
“They said, do not go there in the meantime, just do not go there please. I will correct myself because we value our friendship with China,” he said, adding that he might just send his son to the island.
Duterte first made the threat on 6 April when he told reporters: “I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all – these so many islands, I think nine or 10 – put up structures and the Philippine flag.”
“And in the coming Independence Day of ours [12 June], I might, I may go to Pag-asa island to raise the flag there. Even those that are vacant, let us habitate there.”
China claims most of the South China Sea through which about $5tr in ship-borne trade passes annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
Duterte said Beijing warned him that “there will likely be trouble” if every head of state of contending parties will go to the disputed islands and plant flags.
Duterte, who led the warming of ties with China, has blamed the United States for the current maritime tensions for not intervening to stop China building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines will reinforce, but not militarise, areas in the South China Seacontrolled by Manila to maintain the geopolitical balance, Duterte said on Monday.