MANILA(THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte might have winced over demands from two senatorial candidates this past weekend that he stand up to Beijing's aggressive moves in the disputed territory in the South China Sea.
He surely understands that the call was not a mere outcropping of domestic politics. He knows that any misstep on his part could have grave consequences for all of Asia.
The senate candidates from opposition parties want Duterte to protest against Chinese aggression in what is called locally the West Philippine Sea.
They have every right to be concerned, as do all rational observers, over a surge in Chinese vessels plying waters close to the largest island occupied by Filipinos in the sea.
The Philippine military's Western Command has said more than 600 Chinese vessels had been observed since January near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island.
But the worry extends beyond the rising Chinese presence. Chinese naval forces might be seeking to restrict Filipino fishing in the area.
Neri Colmenares, one of the candidates who spoke out, urged the government to muster support among the international community. He accused Duterte of turning a deaf ear to warnings two years ago when the president began pursuing warmer relations with Beijing.
Neri said Chinese naval vessels were warning off Philippine patrols near Pag-asa and the Zamora Reef. Between these is a sandbar that the Chinese have turned into a military outpost, he said.
Philippines naval officials have tried to calm nerves, pointing out that Vietnamese, Chinese and Filipinos all continue to fish in the same area.
Even if true, this doesn't address the construction of military installations.
Chinese expansionism in the disputed waters has included taking such liberties as building artificial islands on which naval outposts are erected.
The problem with not taking swift action is that this could soon become the norm and once Beijing has established a presence in territory claimed by other nations, it will assume sovereignty as well, and it will not easily be evicted, regardless of world opinion or any possible military challenge.
If Manila can claim the moral support of the United States, its treaty ally, and some fellow Southeast Asian countries, it remains to be seen whether they would go to any extreme lengths to bail the Philippines out of trouble.
The US is obliged by treaty to defend the Philippines in the event of an attack, but we are now in the age of Duterte and Donald Trump, both tough guys in their own minds.
They have expressed admiration for one another, but that's not necessarily a measure of mutual trust.
Neither one is a man of principle.
Duterte crudely derided Barack Obama's Washington. He still prefers Beijing's company.
Duterte needs to recognise that his time in power is constitutionally limited but his decisions must be made with the long-term best interests of his republic in mind.
It was unwise of him to mock the US. It is unlikely the US would rush to his rescue of Beijing starts squeezing too hard.
The ace up Duterte's sleeve, though, is that some of the world's busiest sea lanes cross the South China Sea. They are crucial to global trade well beyond the separate needs of China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all of which have claims on the sea, some overlapping.
The sea-lanes need protecting.
Duterte might get a free ride after all.
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