MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sought on Monday to allay fears about China's construction of military bases on manmade islands in the South China Sea, saying these were built to defend against America rather than confront neighboring states.
Duterte also blamed past governments for not building up the country's defenses in the Spratly archipelago at a time when Beijing was only starting to build its artificial islands and turning them into military bases.
"We did nothing," the firebrand leader said in a speech to Chinese-Filipino businessmen. On China's construction, he added:
"It's not intended for us. The contending ideological powers of the world or the geopolitics has greatly changed. It's really intended against those who the Chinese think would destroy them and that is America."
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a strategic waterway where $3 trillion worth of goods passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.
The United States has criticized China's build-up of military facilities on the islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement along the trade route.
China and the Philippines have long sparred over the South China Sea, but relations have improved considerably under Duterte, who has been courting Beijing in hopes of winning business and investment.
In 2014, Beijing started expanding the seven features it occupies in the Spratlys, reclaiming and building artificial islands which are now becoming military bases with airstrips, ports and anti-air and surface-to-surface missiles sites based on satellite and aerial photos.
Duterte defended himself from critics who say he is not doing enough to protect the country's interests in the South China Sea. He said he "will not commit the lives of the Filipinos only to die unnecessarily, I will not go into a battle which I can never win."
He also played down concerns about the recent moves by China to assign Chinese names to several undersea features in Benham Rise, an area the size of Greece in the Pacific Ocean which the United Nations awarded to the Philippines as part of its continental shelf.
"That is ours, period," he said. "I am not allowing any expedition anymore. China went there and put up markers. Those are just directions and of course, they can do it in Chinese, it's their dialect."
Before ending his speech, he cracked a joke offering the Philippines to become a province of China. "If you want, you can make us a province, like Fujian. Province of the Philippines, Republic of China," he added.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing By William Maclean)