Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte must end his “policy of subservience” towards Beijing, lawmakers and foreign policy experts have said, warning that the Filipino leader’s silence is sending the wrong signal as hundreds of Chinese “maritime militia” vessels continue to congregate within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
While several Filipino officials, including the country’s top diplomat and the defence chief, have openly demanded that the Chinese vessels immediately leave the country’s waters, Duterte has kept quiet for weeks.
During an address on Thursday night, Duterte did not mention the South China Sea. His spokesman said earlier that the president preferred to pursue his “diplomatic initiatives” in “private”.
Earlier on Thursday, the Philippine Coast Guard revealed that despite repeated demands by Manila that Chinese ships leave Whitsun Reef, at least 240 Chinese vessels remained in the area and surrounding waters as recently as Wednesday.
The vessels were first spotted on March 7 at Whitsun Reef, which is about 320km (200 miles) west of Palawan Island and within the Philippine EEZ as defined by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Since the first reported sighting, the vessels have dispersed in an even wider area.
In a statement on Thursday, Senator Leila de Lima, an opposition member, warned that the Philippines could become “just another one of China’s satellites” if Duterte and the military failed to confront China.
De Lima said despite the expression of support by the United States towards Manila’s position in the South China Sea, Duterte’s “policy of grovelling before China” could prove detrimental to the integrity of the Philippine territory.
For almost 70 years, the Philippines has maintained a mutual defence pact with the US. But since Duterte came to office in 2016, he has nurtured closer ties with China, and has openly showed his disdain towards Washington, even threatening to end the US-Philippine military alliance.
Risa Hontiveros, another opposition senator, said it was time for Duterte to confront his “best friend” China, for its “blatant deception”.
“China is truly intent on refusing any diplomatic means of resolving our disputes,” she said.
The Chinese embassy in Manila has insisted that what it has called “fishing vessels” are only “seeking shelter” near the reef due to bad weather, adding that the area has been a traditional fishing ground of Chinese fishermen and that it is part of China’s Nansha Islands or Spratlys, which is also disputed.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, an international law expert, said unless Duterte speaks and defends the country’s sovereignty, China will not take the Philippines position seriously.
“THE PRESIDENT MUST SPEAK, HE MUST STAND UP HIMSELF, IF HIS SUBORDINATES DO THE TALKING CHINA WILL NOT LISTEN”
— Karen Davila (@iamkarendavila) April 15, 2021
“He must stand up himself. Because if his subordinates do the talking, China will not listen. And if the president is silent, then China will continue … the Chinese will take us seriously if the president will speak,” Carpio said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel on Thursday.
Carpio, who was part of the Philippine team that won a favourable ruling at The Hague in 2016, also dismissed China’s claim that the vessels within the Philippine EEZ are involved in fishing.
“The maritime militia vessels are manned by maritime militia under the payroll of the Chinese government. In fact, the maritime militia are placed under the command of the [Chinese] navy,” he said.
The Hague tribunal has said the Philippines has exclusive control of the resources within its EEZ. That ruling, however, was dismissed as “null and void” by China, which continues to claim almost all of the South China Sea under its so-called “nine-dash line”.
If the “weak approach” of the Duterte administration in confronting China continues, more features within the Philippines’ EEZ could be taken over by other countries as well in the future, said Liz Derr, co-founder and CEO of Simularity, a US-based geospatial company that has been monitoring incursions in the South China Sea.
China has already built naval and air facilities on an artificial island on top of the Mischief Reef, which is also within the Philippine EEZ. China has also created an island at Scarborough Shoal, which was controlled by the Philippines until 2012.
“Unfortunately, the Philippines is weak. We’ve seen and documented what other claimants have been doing to shore up their claims,” Derr told an online forum organised by the Manila-based think-tank, Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies.
“We’ve seen how much weaker the Philippines is in protecting [its] territory, compared to the other claimants. If this weakness continues, we will surely see more features being occupied by other countries,” she pointed out.
Shore up EEZ
Compared with the Philippines, Vietnam has shored up its sovereign rights over its own EEZ by building 29 outposts in the Spratlys, she pointed out. Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea.
Derr conceded that it would be unlikely for the Philippines to recover the artificial islands built by other countries, including China, within Manila’s EEZ.
She urged the Philippine government to protect its own EEZ by occupying the unoccupied Spratly features.
Carpio, the former Supreme Court justice, agrees.
“Otherwise, China will beat us,” he said. “China will just put up something there, and there’s nothing we can do. We should put up structures within our EEZ.”
Meanwhile, former Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a statement on Thursday that he shares the concern of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Philippines could become a “subject” of China if it does not stand up to Beijing’s “duplicity and being a bully”.
“In our opinion, Secretary Clinton is absolutely correct in expressing her fear that the Philippines could become a subject of China. To the last Filipino, under the leadership of [Foreign Affairs] Secretary [Teodoro] Locsin and [Defense] Secretary [Delfin] Lorenzana, we must finally stand up to Beijing’s duplicity and being a bully,” del Rosario said.
In an interview published on Tuesday, Clinton told the Philippine news website Rappler that she worried the Philippines would become “basically a subject of China through financial investments, through the buying of influence, through the undermining of institutions”.
“I think that there’s a real danger that, left unchecked, the Philippines – no matter who the leader is – would find itself increasingly unable to act without Chinese approval. I don’t think that’s the kind of future that the Philippines would like,” Clinton told Rappler’s Maria Ressa.