MANILA -- President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s remark about making the Philippines a province of China was done in jest, according to Malacañang.

On Monday night, Duterte made the joke in front of Chinese-Filipino businessmen and Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua on the founding anniversary of the Chinese Filipino Business Club at the Manila Hotel,

However, before making his joke, the President insisted that only the Philippines had claims over the Philippine Rise, formerly Benham Rise.

Duterte also downplayed how China named five undersea features of the Philippine Rise which were approved by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) last year.

“That’s in jest because he started in a very serious tone, that we have title over West Philippine Sea and we have rights over Philippine Rise,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a Palace briefing.

“You know the President is the President. And when he was serious at the beginning of his speech, I think he can jest in the later part of the speech,” he added.

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, in an interview, also said that he took Duterte’s remark as a joke that meant he wanted the Philippines and China to have closer ties.

“I think it is only a joke. My interpretation is he wants to have a closer relationship between the two independent countries given the profound historical links between the two peoples,” he said.

“I think everybody should interpret it in such a way. He was joking, but he indicated his friendly feelings towards local Chinese community and also towards China,” the ambassador added.

He, meanwhile, assured that the Chinese government respects the sovereign rights enjoyed by the Philippines.

“If you do not take the Chinese name you can have the Filipino name. You enjoy sovereign rights. The extended Continental shelf is granted by international law. China respects that,” he said.

Duterte earlier said the best approach to addressing the territorial conflict with China on the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) is through “diplomatic” means. (PNA)