It’s a tactic not seen since the dying days of World War II: desperate soldiers, sailors and pilots flinging themselves at their enemies in suicide attacks.
But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned of the return of the ‘kamikaze’ — or ‘divine wind’ — tactics of the Japanese.
Describing his dilemma in dealing with an immensely more powerful China in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the president said he has few options other than to order troops to “prepare for suicide missions”.
He was referring to recent moves by Beijing to surround the island of Thitu (also known as Pag-asa) with some 270 fishing militia and Coast Guard vessels — both of which are controlled by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.
The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs in a statement last week that their presence was “illegal” and a “clear violation of Philippine sovereignty”.
Duterte reminded China in a speech yesterday of its closer ties under his leadership, but said the island occupied by Filipinos in the disputed waters was threatened, “things would be different.”
“Let us be friends, but do not touch Pag-asa Island and the rest,” Duterte said in a speech to public officials.
“I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there. If you touch that, that’s a different story. I can tell my soldiers ‘prepare for suicide missions’.”
China’s Island Grab
The island of Thitu has a small military garrison as well as a fishing village for some 100 civilians. The coral outcrop sits some 500km from Palawan, the closest mainland island of the Philippines.
Six governments claim territories in the South China Sea.
The dispute has flared ever since Beijing began aggressively building remote reefs into artificial islands, and placing extensive fortifications upon them.
“It has been observed that Chinese vessels have been present in large numbers and for sustained and recurring periods — what is commonly referred to as ‘swarming’ tactics — raising questions about their intent as well as concerns over their role in support of coercive objectives,” the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs statement said.
Earlier in the week, Philippine military chief General Benjamin Madrigal Jr. said Beijings incursions were becoming a serious concern.
“This is a concern not only for the military, but for other agencies as well, including the Coast Guard. We are looking for ways to address this,” Madrigal told reporters at the opening ceremonies for the annual Balikatan joint military drills between the Philippines, the US.
Last month, two former Philippine officials filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity over his government’s assertive actions in the South China Sea, which they say have deprived thousands of fishermen of their livelihood and destroyed the environment.
President Duterte has adopted a non-confrontational approach in territorial spats with China while seeking infrastructure funds and investment.
“I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China,” the president said before visiting Beijing last year.
He has repeatedly said opposing Beijing’s territorial demands was pointless because of its immense military and economic strength. But recent attempts by China to muscle its way in on fishing grounds and islands traditionally accessed by the Philippines has made many of his citizens uneasy.
Duterte has largely ignored a victory by the previous Philippine government in 2016 that found China’s occupation of the reefs, and its declaration that they now constituted islands under their sovereign control, invalid.
But he has since come under increasing criticism for taking too soft a stance towards Beijing, and winning little in the way of investment in compensation.
China’s foreign ministry last week said it had “exchanged views frankly, amicably and constructively” with the Philippines about the standoff in the Spratly Islands.
But the United States, earlier this year, declared it would come to Manila’s aid in the event of an “armed attack” in the South China Sea.
President Under Pressure
The Philippine president, in his latest outburst against critics, warned he would declare a “revolutionary government” and arrest his detractors if he is pushed against the wall.
President Duterte made the threat yesterday in a speech in which he expressed exasperation with criticism while trying to fight criminality. Duterte has been known for provocative remarks, which his spokesmen have often downplayed as hyperbole.
“I have enough problems with criminality, drugs, rebellion and all, but if you push me to the extreme, I will declare the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and I will arrest all of you,” Duterte said, adding that he is willing to face the consequences. “I am willing to be hanged. I’m willing to die.”
Duterte’s threat drew concern from democracy and human rights advocates. Former Commission on Human Rights chairwoman Loretta Ann Rosales said the country’s 1987 constitution guarantees freedom of speech, including criticism of officials. She said habeas corpus, which requires the state to justify a citizen’s detention, can only be suspended during specific contingencies such as war or dictatorship.
“The president should know that employing tactics from the Marcos playbook does not end well,” Rosales said, referring to Ferdinand Marcos, the late Philippine dictator who was ousted in a 1986 popular revolt.