MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched a spirited defence of his relationship with China on Monday (Jul 22), insisting that his refusal to challenge its maritime assertiveness was not capitulation, but an avoidance of conflict.
Known for his stinging rebukes of Western powers, the firebrand leader devoted part of his annual State of the Nation address to arguing that it was senseless to confront a country with claims to the same waters, and a far superior military.
"I will send our marines to drive away the Chinese fishermen, I guarantee you, not one of them will come home alive," he said in an at least one-hour speech to Congress that frequently went off-script.
"If I send my new frigate, they will be decimated because there are already guided missiles on that island," he said, referring to a reef that China has turned into a de facto military installation.
"The fastest that they have installed can reach Manila in seven minutes. You want war?"
Duterte has drawn heavy scrutiny for his warm ties to a country deeply mistrusted by his US-allied defence apparatus, with critics accusing him of gambling with national sovereignty in pursuit of massive investments that have not materialised.
An anti-China protest ran for several hours outside the venue of Duterte's speech.
His opponents have pressured him to take a tougher line after last month's sinking of a Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel, and point to Beijing's increased coast guard and fishing militia in disputed water as a sign of insincerity.
China says it has the right to defend what it calls its waters, despite a 2016 international arbitration ruling that invalidated its claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
That case was lodged and won by the Philippines, an issue Duterte said he would most probably raise with China in his final year in office.
"Let me assure you, national honour and territorial integrity are at the foremost of my mind," he added.
"But we have to temper it with the times and realities we face today."
CALLS TO REINSTATE DEATH PENALTY
Duterte also urged lawmakers to bring back the death penalty as part of his internationally-condemned crackdown on narcotics in which police have killed thousands.
Buoyed by exceptionally high approval ratings and a legislature dominated by his allies, Duterte used his speech to urge action on a key unrealised plank of his tough-on-crime stance.
"I respectfully request congress to reinstate the death penalty for heinous crimes related to drugs as well as plunder," he said referring also to the nation's deep rooted corruption problem.
"My countrymen, it is a sad commentary that we cannot distinguish our need from our greed, our principles from prejudices," he told hundreds of assembled lawmakers, diplomats and celebrities in Manila.
READ: Philippines' Duterte pledges 'unrelenting' drug war
Though his campaign is the subject of a recently launched review by the United Nations' rights body and preliminary inquiry from International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutors, he was defiant in his address.
"Duterte - extrajudicial killing - report to the ICC," he said. "If you can provide me with a good comfortable cell, heated during winter time ... unlimited conjugal visits, we can understand each other."
In May's mid-term elections Duterte allies won control of the Senate, which had stopped cold some of his most controversial proposals, including bringing back capital punishment.
WAR ON KARAOKE?
Duterte said government graft was pervasive and promised a day of reckoning for corrupt officials, ordering local governments to enforce laws to protect the environment and threatening to shut down polluters.
He demanded more efficient business processes and threatened in jest to kill the heads of underperforming agencies, besides floating the idea of closing bars nationwide at midnight, and banning karaoke singing in public after 8pm or 9pm.
Alcohol and tobacco "should be exterminated from the face of the earth" as they had given him health problems, he added.
Duterte made few references to his signature war on drugs, despite a Jul 11 decision by the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the thousands of deaths and allegations of summary killings by police.
Critics say Duterte's frequent threats and talk of bloodshed have emboldened police to kill drug users and peddlers with impunity. Police say suspects were killed in self-defence.
"I use similes, metaphor, hyperbole, every now and then to stress a point," Duterte said, referring to his rhetoric. "I am as human as anybody else."