FACT CHECK South China Sea: Waters of Contention

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Locsin contradicts statements of Duterte and predecessor Cayetano on “possibility of war” with China

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddyboy Locsin, Jr. has contradicted previous statements of President Rodrigo Duterte and his predecessor, now House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, on the possibility of war with China over disputed territories in the South China Sea — the latest in the series of government officials’ evolving and conflicting pronouncements on the issue.


In a speech before the 74th United Nations (UN) General Assembly, Locsin talked about the negotiations on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-China Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan partly or wholly claim.

He said that it is unlikely for Manila and Beijing to get into war over disputed territories, because any country will not risk losing “the richest” market in the world:

“So the COC is a code of reality. The reality of the proximity of the soon to be biggest economy in the world in one place with a commensurate industrial war-making capacity. But war is a totally remote possibility.

All parties have built so much and achieve such material progress that none of us nor any outside power will risk losing the richest market in the world. So it is a code of live and let live with China, until it is not.”

Source: United Nations, Philippines – Minister for Foreign Affairs Addresses General Debate, 74th Session, Sept. 29, 2019, watch from 6:42 to 7:12


This is a flip-flop.

Duterte first mentioned the possibility of going to war with China while narrating his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017, during bilateral talks in Beijing on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum. The president claimed Xi threatened to go to war with the Philippines if the latter will drill for oil in the disputed territories within the South China Sea.

He has repeated that story on various occasions, including in his fourth State of the Nation Address on July 22, 2019. He earlier told the same story in his speech at the 33rd Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary National Convention:

Sinabi ko talaga harap-harapan (I told him face-to-face): ‘That is ours and we intend to drill oil there.’ Wala nang palaboy-laboy (No fooling around). ‘If it’s yours, well that is your view, but my view is that I can drill the oil if there is some inside the bowels of the Earth because it is ours.’

Sagot sa akin (He told me), ‘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.’

Source: RTVMalacanang Youtube, 33rd Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary (PCGA) National Convention (Speech), May 19, 2019, watch from 3:10 to 3:45

Then Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano during, a flag-raising ceremony in May 2018 said Duterte “will go to war” against China if it crosses the “red line” of mining natural resources in the South China Sea.

Cayetano’s pronouncement came amid calls for the filing of a diplomatic protest against China’s landing of bombers in Woody Island, one of the disputed areas in the South China Sea — an area also claimed by Beijing, Vietnam, and Taiwan.



United Nations Youtube, Philippines – Minister for Foreign Affairs Addresses General Debate, 74th Session, Sept. 29, 2019

Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2016-2020)

Presidential Communications Operations Office, 4th State of the Nation Address of President Rodrigo Duterte, July 22, 2019

RTVMalacañang Youtube, 33rd Philippine Coast Guard Auxiliary (PCGA) National Convention (Speech), May 19, 2019

Alan Peter Cayetano Official Facebook page, DFA Flag Raising Ceremony, May 28, 2018

RTVMalacañang, Opening Ceremony of National Special Weapon and Tactics (SWAT) Challenge, March 1, 2018, Philippines to disclose diplomatic actions ‘at the right time‘, May 28, 2018

Rappler, Cayetano lectures career diplomats about diplomacy, May 28, 2018

ABS-CBN News Online, Beijing’s South China Sea bombers fly in the face of protests, May 23, 2018



(Guided by the code of principles of the International
Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims,
flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and
debunks them with factual evidence.
Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)