After three years of kowtowing to China and squandering our sovereign rights and territorial integrity in the South China/West Philippine Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte promises to correct his most egregious mistakes and set Philippine-Chinese relations on the right course. Through his spokesman Salvador Panelo, whose statements DU30 has not disowned, we are made to understand DU30 will reportedly do this on his next visit to China where he will attend the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

If Panelo is to be believed, DU30 will ask President Xi Jinping to finally recognize and respect the July 12, 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague upholding the Philippines’ maritime rights against China in the disputed South China/West Philippine Sea. DU30’s first international act as president was to set aside this ruling and adopt China’s position on the issue instead.  DU30 offered no elaborate explanation of his decision then; there is no elaborate explanation why he seems to believe China would recognize and respect the PCA ruling now.

DU30’s decision to ignore the arbitral ruling in 2016 is associated with his dramatic announcement in Beijing to “separate” economically and militarily from the United States. His reported plan to finally revisit the ruling with Xi Jinping has raised speculations that he is now ready to reconcile with the US. There have been some discussions, and at least one announcement, about DU30 visiting the US before the next American presidential elections.

Since the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines, the world has long expected DU30 to compel China to submit to the ruling, which was a historic breakthrough.  But DU30 moved in the opposite direction, provoking charges of a “sellout.” Given DU30’s stern defense of his position, many thought he would first have to be replaced before his adverse position on the ruling could be reversed. Not a few seemed to fear that the Armed Forces of the Philippines, as the constitutional protector of the people and the State, might be forced to call DU30 to account for his failure to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  

This problem has many parts. While the Philippines impotently stood by, China reclaimed, fortified and militarized marine formations within our 200-mile exclusive economic zone, and installed missile sites in some. Not only must all these illegal activities cease, the affected areas must be returned to their natural original state before China embarked on these activities.  This may no longer be possible.

Many things have happened since then. On June 9, 2019  a Chinese vessel rammed and wrecked a private Filipino fishing boat with 22 fishermen on board on Recto Bank; China’s aircraft carrier was reported to have entered Philippine national waters without the prior permission of the Philippine government; the Chinese reportedly plan to acquire, through Filipino dummies, Fuga and Grande islands in Luzon and two other islands on both ends of Palawan; and the Philippine defense and security establishment is reported to have documented an overflow of Chinese nationals in the Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations (POGO) hubs in the National Capital Region.

Despite strong denials by both DU30 and Xi Jinping, there is a growing perception that the Philippines is now a Chinese province. This has clearly provoked a nascent tide of anti-Chinese nationalism. DU30 cannot possibly fail to see this. But assuming he is persuaded to take a U-turn on the arbitral ruling, how does he intend to tell Xi Jinping that he has changed his mind?  Xi seems to regard the matter as a “closed case” and is not inclined to reopen it for any reason whatsoever. Some have even suggested that DU30 is effectively estopped from asking Xi to revisit the matter.

No one has suggested that DU30 has a stronger hand than the Chinese leaders in any political game they have to play right now. A recent online article by Charles Avila (“Gardener’s Tales: Indonesia, the Philippines and China”) sees DU30 in the position of Indonesian President Sukarno vis-a-vis the Chinese Communist Party in 1965.

At that time Sukarno was ailing. His skin was covered with bluish spots, a telltale sign of kidney failure, says the Avila article; and he refused to receive even the friendliest visitors. D.N. Aidit, the leader of the Indonesian communist party (PKI), was the only exception: he came with six or seven doctors from China, whose prescription was political rather than medical.

“Whatever you have to do, do it now,” the doctors reportedly told Aidit. This was in the middle of August 1965. By the end of the month, the anti-Sukarno coup began to unfold. The PKI played a major role, but eventually lost out to the military, which finally installed Suharto as president.

Can it happen again?  This is the unanswered question in the Avila article.