West Philippine Sea

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

Dwight de Leon

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

Photo courtesy of Angie de Silva/Rappler, Inoue Jaena/Rappler, Philippine Coast Guard; Graphics by Alyssa Arizabal/Rappler

(1st UPDATE) 'Romualdez went to Pag-asa Island, while Duterte welcomed Chinese officials in Davao,' a political scientist points out

MANILA, Philippines – House Speaker Martin Romualdez’s recent trip to Pag-asa Island makes him the highest-ranking official under the Marcos administration to visit a Philippine territory also being claimed by China amid enduring tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

It is an interesting and curious effort, which came days after the House of Representatives under his leadership moved to realign the highly debated confidential funds sought by Vice President Sara Duterte to agencies protecting the vast waterway.

Romualdez has denied that there were political motivations behind the decision to remove the secret funds from the offices of Duterte, who, just a few months ago, took swipes at Romualdez in public pronouncements, signaling a rocky patch in the personal relationship between the two allies.

Political observers believe the House’s move to strip Duterte of her confidential funds, as well as Romualdez’s posturing on the West Philippine Sea issue, are intertwined with the latter’s rumored aspirations for 2028 – a presidential election year – although the Speaker already brushed those early speculations aside.

INSPECTION. Government officials fly to Pag-asa Island to check the status of development projects there on October 5, 2023. From left to right: House appropriations chairman Zaldy Co, Minority Leader Nonoy Libanan, Majority Leader Mannix Dalipe, Speaker Martin Romualdez, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Romeo Brawner, and Western Command Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos. Photo courtesy of Romualdez’s office.
Not a vocal advocate

Looking at Romualdez’s track record as a legislator, there is little evidence to suggest he had been a visible defender of the Philippines’ sovereign rights and maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea before he became speaker.

Even in the first few months into the presidency of his cousin Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Romualdez maintained a certain distance on matters involving the resource-rich waterway. For instance, he kept a muted response after China forcefully retrieved floating debris from the Philippine Navy, or aimed a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship.

It was a sharp contrast to his counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate President Miguel Zubiri, who did not mince words when describing the laser-pointing incident in February as part of China’s “aggressive tactics.”

A few statements here and there, however, showed a gradually increasing appreciation by Romualdez towards the hot-button issue.

When Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario died in April, Romualdez remembered the Aquino administration-era Cabinet official for “his strong and consistent defense of territorial waters.”

In June, the Speaker marked Marcos’ first year in office by highlighting his cousin’s resolve to cultivate ties with the US and renew bilateral discussions with China “to uphold our interests in the West Philippine Sea.”

By this time, public sentiment against China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea had become more apparent. Majority of Filipinos wanted the government to assert its rights in the area – either through diplomacy or military action, according to an Octa Research survey in July. A Pulse Asia survey the same month said four in every five Filipinos agree to building alliances to protect Philippine waters.

When China used water cannons against PCG and civilian vessels in August, Romualdez said he supports the President in “defending every inch of our territory.” (Romualdez’s statement, however, paled in comparison to Zubiri’s privilege speech, which strongly condemned Beijing’s actions.)

Where to put the confidential funds

His biggest contribution yet to the discourse in the West Philippine Sea began in September, when budget deliberations in the House of Representatives kicked into high gear.

The chamber had been enduring a deluge of criticism from the public because of its cozy treatment towards Vice President Duterte. She breezed through committee budget deliberations with no questions asked, preventing opposition lawmakers from interrogating her on matters pertaining to her P125-million confidential fund last year.

Later, a Commission on Audit (COA) report revealed she exhausted that amount within 11 days in December 2022. It was a damning piece of information that Kabataan Representative Raoul Manuel had to point out that if secret funds received annually by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in the past decade were added up, it would still be less than what Duterte’s office spent ten months ago.

The comparison came on the heels of another incident in the West Philippine Sea – China installing floating barriers in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) to prevent Filipinos from fishing in the area.

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

As criticisms mounted, party leaders in the House held a closed-door meeting on September 25 to tackle numerous agendas, including confidential funds.

Congressman Johnny Pimentel – head of the PDP-Laban contingent in the lower chamber – told Rappler the discussion on confidential funds took them two hours, but claimed no one objected to the idea to deny Duterte’s request for confidential funds. 

“There were so many opinions presented, but in the end, we decided that for the good of the country, it would be prudent to reallocate the funds,” he said.

For House appropriations senior vice chairperson Stella Quimbo, it was just the appropriate thing to do based on information currently available.

“[The decision] was based on what we have seen so far, which is the COA report. There’s an issue, there’s an audit observation memorandum. While we’re waiting for answers, [removing the funds from the OVP] would be the right thing to do for now,” Quimbo later told Rappler.

The party leaders released the joint statement in the morning of September 27, the last plenary session before the House went on a month-long break. They committed to realign the confidential funds to the Coast Guard and other agencies with West Philippine Sea-related functions.

“In studying the budget, we listened to grievances of the public,” Romualdez said in his closing speech at the end of a long day, just a few hours after appropriations chairman Zaldy Co confirmed that the Office of the Vice President (OVP) and the Duterte-led Department of Education (DepEd) would lose their confidential funds for next year.

Some House leaders insisted Romualdez was not the main champion for the realignment of funds, and that he only followed suit after his men reached a consensus.

“That’s not the Speaker’s initiative. It came from the party leaders, because they were part of the plenary discussions,” House secretary general Reginald Velasco told Rappler.

“In the party leaders’ meeting, Speaker Martin was present, but he did not lead the discussion,” Pimentel added.

Ronald Llamas, former presidential adviser for political affairs during the Benigno Aquino III administration, however, believes that Romualdez saw a “positive angle” to strongly justify the removal of secret funds from Duterte, and simply grabbed that opportunity.

“The PCG really needs the confidential funds, so we don’t just rely on Americans, Australians, and Europeans. Our Coast Guard is confronted with the biggest navy in the world,” Llamas told Rappler.


On October 5, Romualdez doubled down on his support for the West Philippine Sea cause by visiting Pag-asa Island, the administrative center of the Kalayaan Island Group in Palawan province which the Philippine government uses to assert its claims in the waterway.

LANDMARK. House leaders pose for a photo op in front of Pag-asa Island’s marker. Photo courtesy of Romualdez’s office.

It was a single-day, back-and-forth trip, followed by a press conference in the evening in Metro Manila. The media briefing was notable because Romualdez rarely faces reporters to answer questions.

He promised funding for the development of Pag-asa Island, particularly on the construction of key infrastructure, such as cold storage facilities, storm shelters, satellite-based communication facilities, and a solar power plant.

A week later, a small House committee working on budget amendments reallocated P1.23 billion to West Philippine Sea frontline agencies. These include P200 million for the Coast Guard, and P381 million for the Department of Transportation’s airport development project on the island.

Pag-asa island has strong tourism potential, and could be the next Maldives, Romualdez quipped.

Romualdez has not adopted a more assertive language compared to senators, but shared that during his visit, he saw Chinese ships within Philippine jurisdiction – apparently without clearance from the Philippine government.

“We want to engage also our friends here from the Chinese Embassy and perhaps we can have conversations on how we can actually have protocols within areas of Philippine territorial integrity,” he said.

Secretary general Velasco told Rappler the excursion was a “reality tour” for Romualdez, adding: “Now, they have basis in supporting the idea of reallocating funds from the OVP and other agencies to other offices in dire need of resources.”

Political strategy

Analysts believe Romualdez’s support for the West Philippine Sea is low-risk, and is already in line with the foreign and defense policy of the President.

But whether deliberate or not, the move also highlights the diverging paths that he and Vice President Duterte are taking in connection with the West Philippine Sea debate.

“Romualdez even went to Pag-asa Island, while Duterte welcomed Chinese officials in Davao. You can see the contrast, and I think that’s the picture his political advisers are trying to paint,” University of the Philippines Political Science Department chairperson Aries Arugay told Rappler.

“I think what the Speaker is trying to do is emphasize the top national security concern of the government of President Marcos, which is territorial defense, not communist insurgency,” he added.

The DepEd, under Duterte’s leadership, said in the past that its proposed confidential funds for 2024 would be utilized for information gathering against communist insurgency. Days after the House committed to pull the plug on Duterte’s spy funds, the vice president asserted that “critics of confidential funds are enemies of peace.”

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

Romualdez saw no conflict with Duterte following the latter’s statement, and House leaders said they don’t feel that Congress was being alluded to by the country’s second-in-command.

“We just took the cue from her when she said she will leave the matter up to Congress,” Representative Pimentel said, echoing an earlier statement by Romualdez.

Friends or foes?

The confidential fund fiasco ultimately raises the question on where things stand between Romualdez and Duterte, months after an apparent rift that saw the Speaker’s allies coming to his defense.

Duterte once refused to mention the name “Romualdez” in a speech, and denied in a press release that the Speaker was instrumental in her decision to seek the vice presidency. At the height of the squabble in May, Duterte cryptically urged an ambitious individual to stop being a “tambaloslos,” a Visayan pejorative.

In July, the two were seen “canoodling” – which was how the President described it – during Marcos’ televised sendoff to Malaysia. The message they wanted to send, genuine or not, was clear: they were back in each other’s arms.

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

It is, however, also telling that the two did not meet when Duterte graced the House twice since August to attend the budget deliberations of her offices, unlike last year (and if they did, neither party issued a press release).

“As late as early this year, the lines have been drawn. The ‘tambaloslos’ incident formalized it. The hot air balloon of unity has exploded, because the term ‘unity’ does not have substance anyway,” former presidential adviser Llamas said.

BLIND ITEM? A social media post from Vice President Sara Duterte in May 2023 takes a swipe at someone using the word “tambaloslos,” a Visayan pejorative meant to insult. Screenshot from Duterte’s Instagram account.

Tensions within the super majority alliance only one year into the present administration have sparked conversations about the 2025 and 2028 elections.

UP’s Arugay said it does not take a political scientist to hypothesize that Duterte and Romualdez – both at the peaks of their electoral careers – would aspire for more power. Seven years ago, Romualdez tried to be senator but lost; Duterte flirted with the idea of seeking the presidency in 2022.

People are “reading too much into it,” Romualdez said, when asked if the decision to deny Duterte’s confidential fund request was politically motivated.

Romualdez rebrands as West PH Sea advocate, in contrast to VP Duterte

Arugay, however, pointed out: “These are politicians, we must analyze their moves based on their set of political interests.”

The approval ratings of the Duterte and Romualdez both suffered a double-digit drop in the most recent Pulse Asia survey, each one losing 11 percentage points. But Duterte still continues to enjoy the support of majority of Filipinos; Romualdez doesn’t anymore.

Will their stances on the West Philippine Sea move their numbers? Will territorial defense become a 2025 or 2028 campaign issue? Will the confidential fund mess dictate alliances within the Marcos administration?

Time will tell. – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


Dwight de Leon

Dwight de Leon is a multimedia reporter who covers President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the Malacañang, and the Commission on Elections for Rappler.