On Sunday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana vowed to keep the Philippines’s navy and coast guard vessels in the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, challenging China’s dominant presence.

“Walang alisan (No one leaves).”

Tough words. Great timing. Fantastic rhetoric for a domestic audience.

This is what the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte needs at this time when the people have started to notice the leader’s silence and helplessness in standing up for the country’s sovereign rights.

The Philippines should have done this a long time ago.

The coast guard should have been sent to Scarborough Shoal, Reed Bank, and the Spratlys right after The Hague handed out a ruling in July 2016 rejecting China’s excessive “nine-dash-line” claim on the South China Sea.

It should have sent a clear message to China and to the world that the Philippines was standing on a solid legal and moral position in the maritime dispute.

But the opposite happened. The Philippines set aside the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in exchange for billions of dollars of investments and assistance that China promised to Duterte when he first visited Beijing in 2016.

The Philippines offered a hand of friendship instead of asking China to comply with the international laws under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Worse, Duterte blamed the previous administration for getting the Philippines into this mess, and did not acknowledge the landmark ruling in The Hague.

He also ordered the military to avoid holding naval exercises with the United States within territorial waters where China might get offended.

Duterte’s inaction and reluctance to press China on the 2016 arbitral ruling was a total disaster. China gained control of Reed Bank and Scarborough Shoal, preventing Filipino fishermen from getting near these areas.

A Chinese steel-hulled vessel even rammed and sank a wooden fishing boat, M/B Gem-Ver II, in Reed Bank in 2019, leaving 22 fishermen floating for hours before a Vietnamese fishing crew rescued them.

On the diplomatic front, the Department of Foreign Affairs was very timid in raising the 2016 arbitral ruling in international meetings, including in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit which it hosted in 2017.

Duterte has abandoned the country’s historic legal victory at an international court in the political, diplomatic and security sphere at the expense of trade and investments, which China has yet to fulfill five years after.

Only two token infrastructure projects, bridges spanning the Pasig river, were undertaken. A minimal project loan for a water project in northern Luzon was approved.

The $24 billion in investments and projects pledged by China remain in the drawing boards or are still pending just a year before Duterte leaves office.

Duterte could have done what the Indonesians and the Vietnamese did in pursuing bilateral relations with China. While keeping close economic relations, Vietnam and Indonesia never gave up on their maritime interests.

Vietnamese coast guard vessels swarmed a giant Chinese oil rig when it was sent to its exclusive economic zone to drill.

Indonesian navy ships blasted and sank Chinese fishing boats intruding into its exclusive economic zone.

Duterte, who has repeatedly said taking action against China might lead to a war that the Philippines cannot win, has done nothing to stop the intrusions into the country’s territorial waters and sovereign waters.

The Philippines may have limited capability but it is not helpless.

It held China to a three-month standoff near Scarborough Shoal at a time when the Philippine Navy only had a fleet of World War 2-vintage vessels and the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, an ex-Hamilton-class weather high endurance cutter donated by the US Coast Guard.

The standoff ended when China deceived the Philippines into agreeing to withdraw from the shoal in a deal brokered by the United States. The Philippines pulled out its Japan-acquired coast guard ship but China did not.

The situation is much different now. The Philippines has acquired more assets, and although these are still not enough to match China’s dominance, the vessels could stay much longer at sea to patrol and “show the flag” in disputed waters.

The coast guard has 10 new multi-role vessels acquired through loans from Japan under President Benigno Aquino III. A larger offshore patrol vessel, BRP Gabriela Silang, was acquired from France under Duterte.

The navy has two guided-missile frigates from South Korea and a ex-Pohang-class corvette, BRP Conrado Yap, also donated by the South Koreans. These are addition to three ex-USS Hamilton-class cutters, an ex-US Cyclone-class coastal patrol ship, three ex-British Royal Navy Peacock-class patrol vessels and four World War II-vintage warships — the Kagitingan-class and Malvar-class vessels.

Some of these vessels can stay at sea, or have an endurance of at least a month, allowing the Philippines a longer period to challenge China’s hundreds of civilian vessels which were deployed to the Spratlys since December.

But the timing of the Philippines’s tough actions against China is highly suspicious. It all began about a year before the 2021 presidential elections and when public support for the president may have been affected by his poor handling of the pandemic response and silence in the West Philippine Sea issues.

In the second half of March, a little-known National Task Force on West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) issued a statement about Chinese presence near Julian Felipe Reef, two weeks after getting a report about 220 vessels moored near the boomerang-shape reef within the country’s sovereign waters.

The public never heard about the NTF-WPS early in Duterte’s administration, even in 2018 when Chinese vessels circled Pagasa Island in the Spratly when the military built a beach ramp in preparation for the repair of an airstrip.

Then the DFA sent a flurry of diplomatic protests, summoning the Chinese ambassador at one time and raising the issue of Chinese presence in every diplomatic engagement.

Ambassador Elizabeth Buensuceso did not only speak about it at the Asean senior officials’ meeting but at the bilateral meeting with New Zealand and at the Asean-India dialogue when the main discussion was on coronavirus and the vaccines.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin was so disappointed with China’s intransigence that he took to Twitter to express his anger, forgetting the politeness of diplomacy. He hurled expletives.

Lorenzana also found his voice and toughened his rhetoric — “Walang aalis.”
It is still uncertain whether the Philippines can sustain the maritime and law enforcement operations in the West Philippine Sea.

It could drain the country’s limited and meager resources. Taiwan, a much wealthier state, is already complaining that its resources are fast depleting as it deals with the daily intrusions of Chinese fighters and bombers into its airspace and Chinese ships’ encroachment of its waters.

The increasing rhetoric and action on the ground have made a significant impact on the public as Philippine officials are seen as standing up to China’s bullying.

However, Duterte’s meek response toward China’s actions has dampened the foreign affairs and defense department’s actions.

In the face of contradicting positions between Duterte and his officials, it appears that what Lorenzana and Locsin are doing are only meant to soften criticism against their boss.

Taking to account Palace spokesman Harry Roque’s spin, the government is trying to convince the public that Duterte is upholding national interest in the South China Sea when what the president really wants is for the country to be grateful to China and avoid any confrontation.

Lorenzana and Locsin wanted to build a different image for the leader but they could not mask Duterte’s subservience to China.

Let’s hope the strategy works and won’t not boomerang in next year’s electoral exercise.