The Philippines has finally found its voice.

Three years after Rodrigo Duterte came to power and embraced with both arms China, which has been expanding its presence in the South China Sea, Filipinos heard for the first time some tough words from the Philippines.

Ex-general Delfin Lorenzana, the defense secretary, called Beijing a bully after it seized control of Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop about 130 miles west of Zambales coastline and within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Another ex-general, Hermogenes Esperon, the national security adviser, also expressed concern the influx of Chinese tourists to the country could become a potential security threat after some of these visitors ended up as undocumented workers in the booming offshore gaming operations and might be involved in some criminal activities, like kidnapping, prostitution and drug trafficking.

The two former generals were joined by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who called for a stop to the visa-on-arrival scheme for tourists, especially for travelers from mainland China. There were reports in the media some that Chinese tourists had “infiltrated” military facilities in Palawan, taking some pictures of a naval base at Ulugan Bay.

The toughest words came from Arsenio Andolong, spokesman of the Department of National Defense, who issued a statement on Thursday, saying “the Philippines never gave up any of its positions in the West Philippine Sea during the Duterte Administration.”

He said Beijing’s occupation of some features in the Spratlys within the country’s EEZ is illegal, describing them as “squatters” because Manila has two legal documents to show sovereign rights to the territory – the 1982 Unclos and the 2016 ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.

“We are ready to defend our sovereignty and sovereign rights using whatever means available to us,” Andolong declared, adding “every able-bodied Filipino should be ready to fulfill his or her duty when the time comes.”

Strong words. Courageous and honorable. The statement was unusual given what the president has been saying in these past three years — that the Philippines cannot afford to go to war against China because Chinese leader Xi Jinping had warned him of “trouble” if Manila insists on invoking its rights to the disputed waters under Unclos and the PCA decision.

But the government must take real actions on the ground, matching the words with genuine push-back efforts, like pouring more resources to assert Philippine claims on the South China Sea. It should hasten repairs and rehabilitation of military facilities on Pagasa (Thitu) island and show a more robust presence in the disputed area,

The Philippines must join hands with other claimant-states, like Malaysia and Vietnam, which also occupy some features in the Spratlys, to settle overlapping claims and work closely on both military and non-military cooperative activities, focusing on people-to-people relations. For several years now, Manila and Hanoi have alternately hosted soccer and volleyball games on Northeast and Southwest Cay in the Spratlys.

Together with other member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other allies and partners, like the United States, Australia, Japan and India, the Philippines must also work with a multinational force to call on China to observe international laws in behaving in the disputed waterway and agreeing to a code of conduct to ease tensions and avoid potential accidents.

A multinational force approach has been proven effective in enforcing international norms in other parts of the world and could work to force China to behave as a responsible member of the international community and discourage it from further building a “great war of sands” in the South China Sea.

There are no guarantees the international push-back called by the United States to ensure a free and transparent Indo-Pacific will work, as a similar action proposed by Washington to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine’s Crimea region had fallen on deaf ears.

The Philippines, therefore, has to rely on its own resources to take action. It would require more investment to secure the country’s maritime borders, and protect and preserve the economic resources in its EEZ for its food and energy security.

The Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines do not only need to upgrade military installations in the Spratlys as well as increase and enhance command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability within the country’s vast and porous maritime borders. They must deploy more platforms to interdict intruders in our air and maritime space.

In the Spratlys, there is a need to deploy more coast guard vessels capable of longer endurance at sea to enforce laws against illegal fishing, environmental protection and transnational crimes, like guns, drugs and human smuggling.

The deployment of more coast guard ships would also be an effective tool to counter China’s tested “cabbage strategy” and avoid a virtual blockade of Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys as seen by the swarm of militia and fishing vessels around Pagasa island.

Duterte has approved the military’s P300 billion, five-year capability upgrade. It is not enough but would be a good start in building a modest but credible defense. The Philippines needs more than just tough and strong words to counter the creeping Chinese presence in the region.

For now, it’s better than saying nothing and keeping silent.