epa06755785 Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte (R) reviews honor guards during the 120th Philippine navy anniversary celebration in Manila, Philippines, 22 May 2018. Duterte in his speach said he wants to take on a stronger stance in the South China Sea dispute but this would come at a great cost. According to news reports, China recently deployed bomber planes in one of the disputed Spratly Islands. EPA/FRANCIS R. MALASIG
President Rodrigo Duterte's opponents have described his rapprochement policy as a failure to stand up to Beijing © EPA

The Philippine foreign secretary has claimed his country is prepared to “go to war” over natural resources in the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing both lay claim to waters thought to contain rich gas deposits. 

Alan Peter Cayetano’s remarks on Monday were aimed in large part at critics of President Rodrigo Duterte and follow reports in recent weeks that China has landed bombers and stationed missiles on outposts in the South China Sea. 

“Nobody can extract natural resources there on their own,” Mr Cayetano said in remarks quoted by Associated Press. “The president has declared that. If anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea-South China Sea, he will go to war.” 

The Philippines calls the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea, and the country has tangled with China in the past over the offshore area. Beijing’s maritime claim overlaps the offshore economic zones of several south-east Asian countries.

Since taking power in 2016, the populist Mr Duterte has loosened his country’s traditionally close ties with the US and pursued closer diplomatic and economic ties with China, while still occasionally indulging in anti-Chinese rhetoric popular with many Filipinos. 

Mr Duterte’s opponents have used his rapprochement with Beijing — and what they describe as a failure to stand up to China — as a political cudgel. The foreign secretary pushed back on this criticism in his remarks. 

“For those who keep saying, ‘File a protest, file a protest,’ what do we mean when we said, ‘We are taking all diplomatic actions’?” the AP quoted Mr Cayetano as saying in a flag-raising ceremony at the Department of Foreign Affairs. 

“At the right time, we will prove you wrong because nothing is secret forever,” Mr Cayetano said. “When we declassify all of these, once we have achieved our purposes in the future, you will see that the [Department of Foreign Affairs] has not fallen short in filing whatever diplomatic action [or] verbal protest.” 

Map showing the areas of dispute in the South China Sea, with China and Philippine's territorial claims

China’s air force announced on May 18 that it had landed bombers on an outpost in the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea for the first time. The Philippines expressed concern and said it had taken “appropriate diplomatic action”, but did not spell out what this was. 

CNBC, the US television network, reported earlier this month that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems at three of its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

In 2016, an international tribunal ruled in Manila’s favour in an arbitration case over the Philippine-Chinese maritime dispute, rejecting Beijing’s claim to waters inside its self-proclaimed “nine-dash line” that takes in most of the disputed sea. 

However, China’s superior military might has allowed it to block Philippine prospecting in the area. Mr Duterte has spoken of jointly developing the area’s gas blocks with China, but energy analysts say that this is unlikely as any joint project would need to address issues of sovereignty. 

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites

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