MANILA, Philippines – He had no plan, no strategy, no expectations.
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte strode into the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse room where he was to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on August 29, he already knew that his raising the Hague ruling would yield no real results, save for public relations brownie points back home.
Duterte admitted on Wednesday, September 4, during a press conference in Malacañang that he fully expected Xi to reiterate their rejection of the arbitral ruling and he had no alternative strategy for such a scenario.
"‘Yan ang problema nitong mga yawa na ito sige tanong, 'Go to China' ganon. Nandoon na nga ako ilang beses na eh. Baka sabihin pa ni Xi Jinping, ‘Putang ina sampalin kita. Ilang beses na kita sinagot? Sinabi ko na sa iyong amin 'yan.’ Kasi kung ako tanungin mo, ganon ang sagutin kita," said Duterte,
(That's the problem with these foolish critics who keep saying, 'Go to China.' I was there many times already. Maybe Xi Jinping will say, 'You son of a bitch, I'll slap you. How many times have I answered you? I already said that sea is ours.' Because if you ask me that question, that's how I would answer you.)
Xi, according to Duterte, responded to his "reiteration" of the arbitral award by saying, "We will not budge."
Despite anticipating such a response, Duterte had no back-up plan to get China to respect the ruling or even just some sections of it.
"So what’s the next? You ask me, 'So what’s the next?' Your question is as good as mine. What do we do? What is the next step? Seize the property? By what means? On bended knees?" said Duterte.
Experts and critics have suggested ways like pushing for a United Nations resolution backing the ruling or rallying support among other states in Southeast Asia affected by China's expansive claim to the South China Sea.
Critics like Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that a mere mention of the ruling before Xi, without any other action, would not make any impact on China's aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte and Malacañang had built a lot of hype around his plan to raise the arbitral ruling with Xi, amid intrusions of warships in Philippine waters and the recent ramming of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese vessel that sparked public uproar
Back to 'war' argument
But instead of hinting at any of these options, Duterte just returned to his previous argument that the only other option available to the Philippines is to wage war against China, a war Duterte says Manila will surely lose.
"If I go to war, you must all agree with me that we will go to war because you know it will be the end of our civilization. Then just tell me. If we go to war, we go to war. If we die, we all die," said the Philippine leader.
He again asked if the United States, the Philippines' oldest defense treaty ally, would come to Manila's aid in case of a confrontation with the Chinese Navy in the Spratlys Islands.
"Please ask the Americans, if that scenario would happen suddenly, are you ready also to send your rain [of missiles] to China?" said Duterte.
Drops arbitral ruling topic
Duterte also admitted dropping the topic of the arbitral ruling after Xi's expected answer because he felt the Chinese leader had much on his plate with the Hong Kong protests.
After Duterte supposedly lamented Xi's response by saying the ruling will continue to remain a "problem" and a "sore thumb," the Philippine President said Xi shifted the topic.
"Me, out of courtesy, I said, 'Well, I will not maybe insist on your answer now. I am not satisfied with your answer but I will not ask for any other answer. I’ll just remain where I am, where I started, considering that you are under stress by the incidents in Hong Kong,'" said Duterte.
Duterte said he was practicing the "art of diplomacy."
Not budging on Sulu Sea either
He did not bring home any concrete gains for the Philippines on the matter of the Hague ruling but Duterte, in the Wednesday press conference, tried to project toughness and determination when it comes to the country's rights in the Sulu Sea.
If Xi won't budge on the West Philippine Sea, Duterte said he won't budge on the Sulu Sea, a body of water that lies in the southwestern part of the country.
"Ako (me), I have plans also of my own. The Sulu Sea is ours. I will never budge also. Puta – mag-away na (Bitch – there will be a fight)," said Duterte.
He said he would send more patrols there and threatened to put up a blockade should other states try to claim the sea.
"Diyan 'yung away kasi diyan ako magbo-blockade balang araw (That's where the fight will be because that's where I'll make a blockade one of these days)," said Duterte.
Over the past weeks and months, Chinese warships had been reported as passing through waters in the area of the Sulu Sea, without informing the Philippine government.
These ships had been sighted in Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi and Balabac Strait in Palawan, entry and exit points to and from Sulu Sea.
This prompted Duterte to issue a rare warning, permitting the military to use "unfriendly" means to enforce maritime laws against such ships.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana plans to deploy the Philippines' most powerful warship, BRP Conrado Yap, to patrol the Sulu Sea, apart from the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.