President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he would deploy gray (navy) ships to the West Philippine Sea should China drill for oil in the disputed waters.
Much as he wants to stay "friends" with China, Duterte said he would "stake" the Philippines' claim should Beijing mine the area for minerals.
"We want to remain friends. We want to share whatever it is. I am not so much interested now in fishing, I don't think there's so much fish to quarrel about," said Duterte. China's presence off reefs and outcrops has displaced Filipino fishermen.
"Pag kinuha na yung oil, nickel diyan, precious stone, that will be the time because that is when we should act on it," Duterte said during a public address.
"When we start to mine, when we start to get whatever in this in the bowels of the [South] China Sea, sa akin oil, diyan na ako, by that time I will send my ships there. I will send my gray ships there to stake the claim, yan masiguro ninyo," he said.
Gray ships refer to navy or military vessels while white ships are civilian or coast guard.
Since last month, hundreds of Chinese fishing and militia ships have crowded a reef and outcrops in the West Philippine Sea, which both countries claim as their own. Manila has repeatedly filed diplomatic protests over the presence of the vessels, demanding Beijing to remove the ships.
WHAT WENT BEFORE:
Duterte, who has maintained a friendly stance towards China throughout his presidency, said "we are not in the possession of the sea" as he rejected starting a war with China over fishing disputes.
"Ako totoo yan pag nagumpisa na silang mag-drill ng oil diyan, sabihin ko talaga sa China 'Is that part of our agreement?'" he added.
The Philippines has the backing of a UN Arbitral Tribunal that invalidated Beijing's vast claims in the waters but Duterte refused to flout the ruling and instead sought greater economic and political cooperation with China.
Beijing meanwhile has largely ignored the UN Arbitral Tribunal's 2016 ruling in favor of Manila, ramping up its militarization in the disputed waters.