In his State of the Nation Address last July 27, President Duterte admitted to the nation that he is “inutile” in defending Philippine sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Duterte declared: “[China is] in possession. So what can we do? We have to go to war and I can’t afford it. xxx I’m inutile on that matter, I tell you. And I’m willing to admit it. I cannot do anything.” Inutile, of course, means useless.
This “inutile policy” of Mr. Duterte is not new. Mr. Duterte actually declared and implemented this “inutile policy” barely three months after he assumed office. Despite promising during the election campaign to jetski to Scarborough Shoal to plant the Philippine flag and challenge the Chinese soldiers to a shootout, Mr. Duterte made a sudden about face once he became President. On Sept. 13, 2016, Mr. Duterte publicly instructed the Philippine Navy: “We will not join any expedition of patrolling the sea. xxx I just want to patrol our territorial waters. We do not go into patrol or join any army (navy) because I do not want trouble. xxx Territory is limited to the 12-mile limit. That is ours. Hanggang diyan lang tayo.” Sadly, the Philippine Navy could no longer patrol Scarborough Shoal which is 124 nautical miles from Zambales.
What are the implications of this “inutile policy” of Mr. Duterte? First, this “inutile policy” is a deliberate refusal to perform a constitutional duty. The Constitution mandates that “the State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its xxx exclusive economic zone (EEZ).” The President is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces that is tasked to defend Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights. The President’s “inutile policy” violates this constitutional mandate.
Second, this “inutile policy” is a deliberate refusal to assert the arbitral Award that the Philippines won against China. While the Award affirmed that the Philippines has a full EEZ in the WPS, this “inutile policy” is a clear signal to China that the Philippines’ EEZ in the WPS is open for the taking of China.
Third, this “inutile policy” sends a signal to the Armed Forces of the Philippines that it is not worth defending Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the WPS. What could the brave officers and men of the AFP do if their own commander in chief orders them to desist from defending Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the WPS?
Fourth, this “inutile policy” is a slap on the face of the Filipino people, 90 percent of whom want the arbitral Award enforced by the Philippine Government. The Filipino people know that there are many peaceful and non-aggressive means, fully compliant with international law, in enforcing the Award without going to war with China. We all know that our own Constitution and the UN Charter prohibit resorting to war to enforce the Award. War is not an option and has never been an option.
Fifth, this “inutile policy” sends a signal to the US, UK, France, Australia, Japan, Canada, India, and other naval powers that the Philippines does not welcome their freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the WPS because these operations offend China. Mr. Duterte does not want to offend China even if these naval operations are actually the most robust and visible means of enforcing the arbitral Award.
Sixth, this “inutile policy” signals that the Philippines is abandoning its Asean friends who continue to resist China’s encroachment of their EEZs. Indonesia recently conducted naval exercises in its North Natuna Sea that China encroaches. Malaysia has recently sent its frigate to guard its drilling ship in a part of its EEZ that China claims. Vietnam’s coast guard vessels continue to face off China’s drilling ships and coast guard vessels within Vietnam’s EEZ.
Where is this “inutile policy” of Mr. Duterte coming from? This “inutile policy” shows a captured heart and mind. From the bottom of his heart, Mr. Duterte enthused: “I simply love President Xi Jinping.” From the inner recesses of his mind, Mr. Duterte revealed that China is his protector when President Xi told him: “We will not allow you to be taken out from your office.” This explains Mr. Duterte’s “inutile policy.”