For sure President Duterte is aware of the comments: he’s ready to declare war over garbage sales contracted by private parties, but his silence is deafening when Chinese believed to be maritime militias hit and sink a Filipino fishing boat and then abandon the fishermen to the elements.
The sinking in Recto or Reed Bank is particularly sensitive because it is one of just three spots in the South China Sea over which the Philippines was specifically awarded sovereign rights by the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration or PCA in The Hague.
Unlike Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, which was declared by the court as a common fishing ground over which no country can exercise control, the Philippines has exclusive economic rights over Recto Bank.
There is talk of restiveness in the Armed Forces of the Philippines over the incident in Recto Bank, which is testing Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy and further straining his declared pivot to China. There are reportedly rumblings within the AFP about their commander-in-chief having a low opinion of their patriotism and readiness to defend their country.
Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing generally makes sense; all other countries including the United States (despite Donald Trump’s anti-China rants) are maintaining ties with China on economic and other fronts. But Duterte must know when it’s time to stop bending over backwards, when he must begin looking for manifestations of genuine friendship.
Over the past three years, Duterte has built up a significant reservoir of goodwill with China’s President-for-life Xi Jinping. Duterte might yet surprise us with an effective calibrated response to the incident in Recto Bank. He will have to dispel impressions that Chinese activities in the South China Sea indicate that his friendship is not being reciprocated.