Duterte still defeatist towards China on West Philippine Sea issue

President Rodrigo Duterte once again refused to confront China’s aggressive encroachments in the West Philippine Sea as he rehashed defeatist arguments during his final State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 26. 

Duterte mentioned raising the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral award “clearly and in no uncertain terms” at the United Nations, as well as in bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but once again told Filipinos: “How can we fight China? Do we have the weapons, do we have everything?"

Duterte stuck to his argument that asserting the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea would court “war” with China – a position that's been dismissed as misplaced and misguided by several security, foreign policy, and international law experts. 

West Philippine experts, including retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio have offered several options the Duterte government could take to assert Filipino’s rights in the West Philippine Sea, though Malacañang has insisted it has done everything it can.

In his final SONA, an exasperated Duterte argued there was nothing more to do.

“This arbitral ruling… America and some Filipinos, brilliant Filipinos I would say, keep on pushing for something which I do not know... What do you want? What will I do with a document that does not bind China because they were never a part of that arbitration?” Duterte said in a mix of English and Filipino, echoing China’s remarks on the ruling. 

"Ano gusto nila, makipag-giyera (What do they want, war?) Do something? Do you want war against China?" he added. 

Yet, even as his own defense and foreign affairs secretaries have made strong statements calling out China’s actions. 

Since the beginning of his term, Duterte has downplayed the Philippines' maritime and territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for economic benefits from Beijing. 

Five years later, he has little to show that his China pivot has paid off. 

Diplomatic and defense experts have said Duterte’s strategy of trying to secure compromises with China failed to deliver financial wins for the Philippines, weakened institutions, and failed to advance the country’s position in the West Philippine Sea. 

There's also a strong clamor from Filipinos to assert the country’s rights in Philippine waters. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.