“I will end my term fighting,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte exclaimed in his fourth state-of-the-nation address, which lasted close to two hours.
It was his most disciplined and sombre speech yet, surprisingly bereft of the characteristically colourful language which animated his previous addresses. There were no cusses and insults against his critics, nor the usual anti-Western tirades.
For the first time, however, the highlight of a Philippine president’s state-of-the-union address was a foreign policy issue, namely his rapprochement with China.
Overall, it was a defiant, yet discursively calibrated, defence of one of his most controversial policies.
On the surface, Duterte had every reason to be confident. Latest surveys show that he is the most popular Philippine leader at this stage of a presidency.
In both leading national surveys, conducted by Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations during the second quarter, Duterte garnered the trust and approval of more than eight out of 10 Filipinos.
Moreover, he presented the speech in friendly territory, namely the Philippine Congress, which has been stacked with Duterte’s “supermajority” ruling coalition.
With the opposition’s near-total evisceration in the recent midterm elections, in which all available senatorial seats went to the administration’s allies and independent candidates, the Philippines is now effectively a one-party state.
On one issue, however, Duterte was under tremendous political pressure. Public scepticism towards Duterte’s Beijing-friendly foreign policy intensified after a suspected Chinese militia vessel collided last month with a Filipino fishing boat in the contested waters of Reed Bank.
IN HIS ULTIMATE ACT OF DEFIANCE, THE FILIPINO PRESIDENT MADE IT CLEAR THAT CHINA REMAINS HIS TRUSTED FRIEND, ALMOST NO MATTER WHAT HIS PEOPLE THINK.
The president faced a barrage of criticism after dismissing the incident as a “little maritime accident” that was not expected to affect the Philippines’ burgeoning bilateral relations with China.
He provoked the public’s ire further with his announcement that he would allow Chinese vessels to roam in Philippine waters, potentially violating the constitution.
According to the National Economic and Patrimony provisions of the Philippine constitution, “[t]he exploration, development and utilisation of natural resources” within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone “shall be under the full control and supervision of the [Philippine] state”.
It also makes it clear that the Philippine state “shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens”.
Philippine Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a prominent voice in South China Sea disputes, told the author that Duterte’s decision contradicted the Philippine constitution.
Some critics even suggested it could serve as grounds for impeaching Duterte.
Duterte: I allow Chinese vessels to fish in Philippine waters to prevent war
Though popular, the president seems isolated on the China issue amid a growing public backlash and the festering South China Sea disputes.
According to the latest Social Weather Stations survey, China’s net trust rating among Filipinos fell to a new low of minus-35 per cent, underscoring the widening gulf between the public and Duterte, who has repeatedly described China as his “friend”.
The public is also asking the government to take a tougher stand on China.
As many as 93 per cent of Filipinos believe “it is important that the Philippines regain control of the islands occupied by China in the West Philippine Sea”.
A similar number of Filipinos called on the government to ask the Philippines’ international allies to check Chinese maritime assertiveness and assert the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague against China.
Aware of growing public pressure, Duterte announced, ahead of his state-of-the-nation address, that he would “educate people” about the wisdom and legality of his policy.
“What they are saying that it is unconstitutional … maybe on my [state-of-the-nation address] I will educate people that what I said, “You (China) can fish [in the Philippines” EEZ” … was not unconstitutional. As a matter of fact, it was in keeping with the law.”
In his state-of-the nation speech, a relatively composed Duterte cited the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a legal basis for resource-sharing in the South China Sea.
More specifically, he cited the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that affirmed the “traditional fishing rights” of other countries in waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
His argument, however, raised three major issues. First of all, Duterte was citing the same arbitration award he had repeatedly dismissed and even declared “set aside” in the name of improving relations with China.
Second, he failed to mention that the UNCLOS allows for resource-sharing in a country’s exclusive economic zone, provided there is a “surplus of the allowable catch”.
Did a fishing boat scupper Duterte’s detente with China?
According to an authoritative scientific study, however, the Philippines is facing collapsing fishing stock, a declining catch and losing more than US$600 million annually, thanks to the rapid destruction of coral reefs in its waters.
One of the study’s authors, Deo Florence Onda, a leading Philippine marine scientist, told the author the study is just a “conservative estimate” which doesn’t fully include the cost of illegal, underreported and unregulated fishing, especially by Chinese fishermen.
Most importantly, however, Duterte didn’t clarify the exact geographical extent of his “verbal agreement” with China to allow the latter’s fishermen to enter Philippine waters.
To appease a sceptical public, he promised to stand up to China “in due time”, but for now his priority is “avoidance of conflict”.
“War leaves behind widows. War leaves behind orphans,” Duterte said, emphasising the need for a “delicate balancing act”.
In his ultimate act of defiance, the Filipino president made it clear that China remains his trusted friend, almost no matter what his people think.