MANILA, Philippines (AP) — President Benigno Aquino III warned China in a major national speech Monday that the Philippines was ready to defend its Spratly Islands claims by acquiring more weapons and would elevate the territorial feuds to a U.N. tribunal.
In his State of the Nation Address to Congress, Aquino also announced a new chief anti-graft prosecutor and said his year-old government plans to file its first major corruption case this year against corrupt officials and their accomplices. He did not name the officials but vowed punishment for the guilty.
"We do not wish to increase tensions with anyone, but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours," Aquino said, drawing loud applause at the packed House of Representatives. The address also was televised live to the nation.
Aquino's tough rhetoric echoed past criticisms of China over the Spratlys, so may have been meant to project him as a strong leader dealing firmly with an issue about which many Filipinos feel emotional, political analyst Ramon Casiple said.
Aquino noted the efforts to bolster the military's capability, citing the recent purchase of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and plans to acquire more patrol vessels, helicopters and weapons in deals he guaranteed would be aboveboard.
Aquino did not name China in his speech but clearly referred to it in laying a clear claim to the South China Sea feature called Recto Bank, also known as the Reed Bank, where the Philippines alleges China has intruded.
"There was a time when we couldn't appropriately respond to threats in our own backyard," Aquino said. "Now, our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours; setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue."
Recto Avenue is a popular street in downtown Manila. The Philippines has said Chinese forces have repeatedly intruded into Manila-claimed areas in the sea since February, including at the Reed Bank. Filipino officials said two Chinese patrol boats threatened a Filipino oil exploration ship into leaving the Reed Bank, which they said was within its regular territorial waters and not part of the nearby Spratlys.
Two military planes were deployed during the March 2 incident, but the Chinese boats have left by the time the aircraft reached the Reed Bank, about 90 miles (150 kilometers) from the Philippine coast.
Chinese officials have said there were no intrusions because those waters belonged to China.
The chain of barren, largely uninhabited islands, reefs and banks in the South China Sea are claimed entirety or partly by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. They are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas and straddle a busy international sea lane.
The Spratlys have long been regarded as Asia's next potential flashpoint for armed conflict.
Washington has said the peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes and ensuring the freedom of navigation there were in the U.S. national interest, a position that irked China.
The Philippines has said it intends to bring the Spratlys disputes before the U.N.'s International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. China opposed the plan and wants to negotiate bilaterally instead.
Aquino said bringing the case before an international arbiter would ensure that "all involved nations approach the dispute with calm and forbearance."
On government corruption, Aquino did not identify the officials his government would charge this year but he has been under intense pressure to have his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, prosecuted for alleged plunder.
Arroyo has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing and criticized Aquino for a lackluster performance. Arroyo and her two children, who are now legislators, were absent when Aquino delivered his speech in Congress.
Arroyo traveled to her home province of Pampanga, north of Manila, but later returned to the capital and was confined to a hospital for a still unspecified reason, her spokeswoman, Maite Defensor, said.
More than 6,500 mostly left-wing protesters rallied outside Congress as Aquino spoke, demanding higher wages, farmland and Arroyo's prosecution. They were blocked by riot police from getting near Congress.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.