Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has cancelled a scheduled visit to a disputed South China Sea island, which the country claims to be its own. This latest update comes days after Beijing warned him against the visit.
Last week, the 71-year-old Philippine leader announced his plan to raise the Philippine flag on the island of Thitu and fortify it with barracks setting off alarm bells. Duterte had planned his visit on Thitu's Independence Day in June. "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 on Wednesday. He added that he might send his son to the island to raise the flag.
"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," the President added.
Duterte's decision to visit the island was a direct challenge to China's sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea – an issue which has kept the Asian superpower hostile for quite some time now.
Duterte said Beijing warned him that "there will likely be trouble" if every head of state of contending parties goes to the disputed islands and plant flags.
Manila has been at loggerhead with Beijing over the control of some territories of South China Sea. China claims most of the region, through which more than $5 trillion of trade happens annually, while Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have rival claims.
An arbitration court in July ruled that China's vast claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis. The court criticised Beijing's environmental destruction in the disputed area.The ruling infuriated China and it refused to accept the verdict. Philippines, which filed the arbitration case, requested China to accept the ruling a number of times but Beijing called the Philippines' claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea "baseless" and an "act of bad faith".
The popular president is on a week-long state visit to the Middle East to facilitate trade and investments, and meet with Filipinos overseas. The Middle East is the second largest source of remittances, with more than one million Filipino workers sending home US$7.6 billion in last year, government data showed.
Duterte, who led the warming of ties with China, had repeatedly 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.
On Monday, Duterte said that the Philippines will reinforce, but not militarise, areas in the South China Sea controlled by Manila to maintain the geopolitical balance.