MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines' top diplomat sought Monday to downplay President Rodrigo Duterte's pronouncement that Chinese President Xi Jinping told him China would go to war with Manila if it insists on drilling for oil in the disputed South China Sea, saying they were not threatening each other but talking about preventing conflict.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters there was no bullying and the context of frank talks last week in China — the details of which he said he could not discuss —"was on how to avoid conflict" and "how to increase trust and mutual respect."
"There was no language or even tone that would lead any of the two presidents to believe that there was disrespect for them or their country," he said.
Cayetano said Duterte apparently talked about his meeting with Xi just to respond to a barrage of criticisms that he has been soft on China and has refused to raise the Philippines' arbitral victory last year that invalidates most of China's claims in the South China Sea.
He said that after his return next week from a trip to Russia with Duterte he will explain the context of the two leaders' exchange to lawmakers and a Supreme Court justice, who have urged the Philippines to file a diplomatic protest over the alleged war threats and to ask the United Nations to demand that China comply with the arbitral ruling.
"My interpretation in the meeting is that there was no bullying or pushing around or it wasn't a threat," Cayetano said.
He said Duterte is committed to "protect every single inch of our territory" and Filipinos should trust him on how he will do it.
Duterte said in a speech late Friday at a coast guard event in southern Davao city that he raised the Philippines' arbitral victory against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and told Xi Manila intends to drill for oil there.
"I said when we were face-to-face, 'That is ours and we intend to drill oil there.' No beating around the bush," Duterte said. He said the reply was: "Well, we are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you. We would want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we will go to war."
"Please do not do that because that is ours," Duterte further quoted Xi as saying. He said he replied, "But I have the arbitral (award)." Xi then reportedly said: "Yes, but ours is historical and yours is legal of recent memory. We had that since the Ming dynasty."
Duterte said he replied that "that's too far away" and it is "almost alien to us to hear those words because we were never under Chinese jurisdiction."
Xi reportedly responded: "Well, if you force the issue, we'll be forced to tell you the truth." And when Duterte asked what that was, Xi reportedly said: "We will go to war. We will fight you."
Duterte's spokesman, Enesto Abella, said Monday that Duterte's first and last priority is national interest and the well-being of Filipinos, and that China and the Philippines are committed to peaceful resolutions of their disputes.
"We are very clear that we are not giving up our claim of sovereignty and sovereign rights over certain islands in the South China Sea. At the same time, these matters are pursued in the context of maintaining peace and prosperity in the region," Abella said.