Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in an address televised Friday that he will not withdraw his country's ships in disputed waters of the South China Sea, expressing a willingness to end friendly ties with China should matters come to that.

In the prerecorded address, Duterte said the Philippines has two ships patrolling the seas near Thitu, an island of the Spratlys inhabited by a Filipino community of about 300 people.

"I really will not withdraw. You can kill me if you want to kill me, but I will remain here. This is where our friendship will end," Duterte said, reiterating that war against China is not an option.

Photo taken March 7, 2021, shows Chinese fishing vessels near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine government)(Kyodo)

On Wednesday, a Philippine task force on the South China Sea noted the presence of 287 Chinese maritime militia vessels scattered in the area of Thitu.

This prompted the Philippines to send several of its ships to assert rights over the area, which it considers to be part of its exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, areas believed to be rich in minerals, gas and oil deposits, and other marine resources.

Duterte's remark is the latest in his controversial and often conflicting policy statements about the Philippines' territorial row with China.

Last week, he drew ire for calling a landmark ruling favoring the Philippine position in the dispute as just a piece of paper that could be thrown in the trash bin.

The ruling was handed down in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. It invalidated China's sweeping claim over most of the South China Sea.

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