West Philippine Sea

[Rappler Investigates] Deal or no deal, Duterte?

Chay F. Hofileña

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

[Rappler Investigates] Deal or no deal, Duterte?
Why are we even in this odd situation when we’re transporting supplies and moving well within our exclusive economic zone?

Rodrigo Duterte ceased to be president in June 2022, yet his shadow continues to loom large over state matters today. Of course, his drug war campaign will be immortalized in Philippine history books as probably the worst that resulted in thousands of violent killings instigated by a president. But, as we have discovered, that’s not all there is to Duterte. There’s more, and it got many infuriated.

Diplomatic reporter Bea Cupin has written extensively on the West Philippine Sea and our recent skirmishes with the bully of the high seas, China. If you recall, she has documented crucial developments on the issue, including the supposed “secret deal,” “gentleman’s agreement,” “temporary special arrangements” – whatever it’s called – that Duterte entered into with Beijing during his presidency. 

That deal entailed the Philippine government staying out of Panatag Shoal, which is just about 120 nautical miles from the mainland of Zambales, in exchange for Filipino fishermen fishing in peace – in the vicinity of, but not in, the shoal itself. The narrative has since morphed with denials and contradictions emanating from the Duterte camp – was that Sal Panelo (then chief presidential legal counsel) quoting Duterte and directly refuting claims of Harry Roque (former presidential spokesperson) and Alan Peter Cayetano (ex-foreign secretary) like they didn’t belong to one administration some years back?

In this report in early May (Read: EXPLAINER: How Duterte-era deal ‘waived’ Philippines’ rights, claims in Panatag Shoal), Bea wrote that, by entering into the purported agreement, “it was as if Duterte had agreed that Panatag was China’s.” Sounds like treason? No wonder it had to be categorically denied. Then silence from the usually talkative Roque and not a peep from the equally garrulous Cayetano. “Less talk, less mistake,” perhaps?

Fast forward to May 14, when the Atin Ito coalition started to sail toward Bajo de Masinloc (another name for Panatag Shoal) to deliver supplies to fisherfolk communities whose livelihood has been adversely affected by Chinese aggressive action in the West Philippine Sea. Rafaela David, Akbayan president and among the lead convenors of the coalition, said the mission seeks to “normalize and regularize civilian access” to the area, which has been militarized by China through its coast guard. Read more about the mission here in this report by researcher Jodesz Gavilan: What you need to know: Civilian mission to Panatag Shoal.

Remember that the first attempt by Atin Ito was made in December 2023, but they had to turn back because of consistent tailing by Chinese vessels. We hope nothing untoward happens this time around. As of early Thursday morning, May 16, Bea reported that the main coalition was about 58 nautical miles (over 100 kilometers), or approximately halfway between mainland Zambales and the shoal. 46 Chinese ships were reported to be in the “vicinity area” of Bajo de Masinloc.

But, wait, why are we even in this odd situation when we’re transporting supplies and moving well within our exclusive economic zone? Who put us here again? Duterte, who played footsies with China. Yes, there were official denials, but, as we all know, a denial does not necessarily mean it’s untrue. The same man denied once before he was running for president.

Strangely, no one has bothered to get to the bottom of this serious allegation against Duterte. Former Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said that, if ever, Duterte can be held liable under Section 3(e) of the Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act “for causing undue injury to the Government thru gross inexcusable ignorance or evident bad faith.” If there is sufficient basis, any person, according to him, can file a complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman. Question is, will anyone dare?

The Ombudsman, Samuel Martires, a Duterte appointee, could on his own actually initiate the filing of a complaint – if he were truly independent as an ombudsman ought to be. We need convincing proof of that. Martires retires in 2026.

2025 MIDTERMS. It’s about a year before midterm elections, a typical gauge of the current administration’s popularity and even potential influence in the 2028 presidential elections. We’re starting to monitor political movements as early as now because candidates should be starting by this time to gear up for battle. In this story, One year before 2025 Philippine elections: Proxy wars, and where alliances stand, Palace reporter Dwight de Leon gives the lay of the land. For sure, the Marcos-Duterte UniTeam is no more despite civil appearances.

Marcos’ Partido Federal ng Pilipinas is building and strengthening its base, keeping Sara Duterte’s Hugpong ng Pagbabago at arm’s length. For now, it will be a lot of traipsing and tiptoeing and second-guessing. The Duterte patriarch, after all – never mind if his daughter won’t necessarily listen to him – is a master of surprises. But there are other factors at play that could alter the equation – think International Criminal Court, for one. 

While the Dutertes continue to hold sway over Mindanao, the old man is no longer president with absolute powers he held before. Political power and command over state resources are always a powerful magnet during elections. Keen observers have said that talk about ouster plots against Marcos are not remote nor totally impossible – they could be real; no, they are real. Question is, can Duterte even successfully mount a coup, given his diminished powers? And what is Marcos capable of doing to prevent or preempt such moves? Definitely worth watching.

HIGHEST PAID IN MARCOS’ CABINET. Speaking of Marcos, if you’re curious about the highest earning officials in his inner circle, check out this story: LIST: Highest paid Marcos Cabinet officials in 2023. Based on the 2023 Report on Salaries and Allowances released by the Commission on Audit, among the top earners are Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla, Special Assistant to the President Antonio Lagdameo Jr., Science and Technology Secretary Renato Solidum Jr., Labor Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma, and Public Works Secretary Manuel Bonoan. Other related stories:

Till Thursday after next. Help us continue making sense of events as we approach the 2025 midterm elections by supporting independent and quality journalism. Your support is invaluable. – Rappler.com

Rappler Investigates is a bimonthly newsletter of our top picks delivered straight to your inbox every other Thursday.

To subscribe, visit rappler.com/profile and click the Newsletters tab. You need a Rappler account and you must log in to manage your newsletter subscriptions.

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    “Strangely, no one has bothered to get to the bottom of this serious allegation against Duterte.” Afraid of the Duterte-appointee Samuel Martires in the Ombudsman?

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.