• Kyodo, Reuters

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said that talks are already under way with China on a possible joint venture to explore for resources in areas of the South China Sea that are disputed between the two countries.

Duterte made the statement at a news conference Monday in Manila after his widely anticipated state-of-the-nation speech, where the country’s leader traditionally highlights the accomplishments of the year to the public.

“They (China) have no date yet. But we are into it there already. We are there already. They have a partner already,” Duterte said when asked when the joint undertaking will begin. He offered no details except to say the two sides are already discussing the matter.

The Philippines and China have overlapping claims in the South China, areas believed to be rich in aquatic resources as well as mineral and gas deposits.

Since coming to power last year, Duterte has sought a more pragmatic and conciliatory approach toward China in exchange for economic concessions or assistance.

As part of this strategy, he has opted not to follow up on the landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in July 2016, which invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte also reiterated Monday that he is not willing to go to war with China over the disputed areas, saying it would be a “slaughter” of Philippine forces if such an occasion would arise.

“We are lacking. They have the state-of-the-art (equipment) and everything. They have the missiles now which are locked on to us,” he said, adding that Chinese warheads could reach the Philippine capital in seven minutes.

Relations between the Philippines and China have considerably eased with Duterte’s election to the presidency last year, with his less confrontational approach toward China over the South China Sea disputes.

Duterte has repeatedly referred to China as a friend, and on many occasions he has publicly thanked it for the financial assistance it has promised his government.

The Philippine leader, in fact, included progress achieved in developing relations with China as a highlight of his first year of office, all the while slamming his country’s traditional ally, the United States, for transgressions dating to more than a century ago.

In his national address, Duterte demanded from the United States the return of three church bells supposedly taken by American troops as spoils of war after a massacre of the townspeople of Balangiga on Samar Island in the central Philippines in 1901.

“Those bells are reminders of the gallantry and heroism of our forebearers who resisted the American colonizers and sacrificed their lives in the process.” Duterte said in his speech, adding that those relics are part of his country’s national heritage.

According to accounts in Philippine history, town residents over the age of 10 were ordered executed by U.S. Gen. Jacob Smith, after Philippine guerillas killed 48 U.S. troops in an earlier attack.

Duterte has openly condemned the United States for past wrongdoings since last year when then President Barack Obama expressed concern over human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces during the Philippine president’s war on drugs.

Duterte promised an unrelenting war on drugs, defying critics who were “trivializing” his campaign with human rights concerns and unjustly blaming the authorities for the bloodshed.

Duterte wasted little time in his address to defend a crackdown that has killed thousands of Filipinos. He said that though he valued human life, he needed to tackle “beasts and vultures” that were preying on helpless people and stopping foreign investment from pouring in.

“The fight will be unremitting as it will be unrelenting despite international and local pressure, the fight will not stop,” he said.

“I do not intend to loosen the leash in the campaign or lose the fight against illegal drugs, neither do I intend to preside over the destruction of the Filipino youth by being timid and tentative in my decisions in office.”

The crackdown on drugs is the signature campaign that has defined Duterte’s presidency and caused an international outcry, with rights groups condemning his administration for a campaign that has overwhelmingly targeted drug users from poor communities, and left narcotics kingpins untouched.

Critics say Duterte has turned a blind eye to thousands of deaths during police operations that bear all the hallmarks of executions. Police say they have shot dead suspects only in self-defense and deny involvement in a spree of killings of drug users by mysterious vigilantes.

Duterte said critics were wrongly blaming police for most of the deaths and “trivializing” his campaign by talking about the need for due process and to protect human rights.

He said his detractors at home and abroad should help him instead.

“Your efforts will be better spent if you use the influence, moral authority, moral ascendancy of your organizations over your respective sectors to educate the people on the evil of illegal drugs, instead of condemning the authorities, unjustly blaming for every killing that bloodies this country,” he said.

Duterte’s annual address lasted nearly two hours, during which he frequently deviated from a prepared speech that was eventually reduced to brief talking points.

Some 7,000 protesters from numerous groups gathered outside the venue to demonstrate against Duterte. After his speech, he listened to their complaints for several minutes.

He lashed out strongly at mining companies he said were destroying the environment and threatened to tax them heavily, or close the sector completely.

He said he would consider stopping exports of raw materials until they could be processed domestically, adding it was a “nonnegotiable” policy that mining firms would repair damage they had caused, or “I will tax you to death.”

Duterte called on the Senate to pass a tax reform bill to help finance a multibillion infrastructure program key to his economic agenda.

The lower house passed a leaner version of the proposed measure, the first of five tax reform packages Duterte is pushing to boost state coffers and make the tax system fairer and more simple.

Expected revenues from the original draft, which seeks to cut the personal income tax rate, raise excise taxes on fuel and automobiles, amounted to 162 billion pesos ($3.2 billion).

Duterte also said he would press the legislature to pass a law to grant autonomy to a predominantly Muslim region in Mindanao, a move experts say could help arrest the spread of extremist ideology.

He also said he was prepared to “wait it out” before retaking the Mindanao city of Marawi from Islamic State-inspired rebels, because he was concerned hostages might be killed. He acknowledged there had been intelligence failures and mistakes in assessing the initial threat.

Duterte told reporters he would add 35,000-40,000 new troops over the next two years and buy planes and high-altitude drones to “build an armed forces that can fight all fronts, everywhere.”

Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a critic of Duterte, described the president’s much-anticipated address as “a bad open-mic performance.”

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