Analyst: Duterte doesn't care about the West Philippine Sea

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 21 2021 01:49 PM | Updated as of Apr 21 2021 02:09 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte talks to the people after holding a meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) core members at the Arcadia Active Lifestyle Center in Matina, Davao City on March 8, 2021. Richard Madelo, Presidential Photo

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's alleged inaction and silence on China's frequent incursion in the West Philippine Sea show he doesn't care about the resource-rich waters, an analyst said Wednesday.

"Five years into the Duterte presidency, I have trouble believing he's playing some kind of deeper 3-dimensional chess game the rest of us don't understand," Greg Poling, director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative-Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ANC.

"I think that he said the exact same thing since July 1, 2016 and that we should all just take him in his word. He doesn't care about the West Philippine Sea. He just said he doesn't care about the fish."

In a televised public address Monday, Duterte said it would lead to war if the Philippines asserts its rights in areas being claimed by China in the West Philippine Sea.

He said he would only deploy military ships should China go after oil and mineral resources in the area.

"We do not send gray ships to --- mga war ships diyan --- na para ipakita lang natin sa Pilipino na maski na ilang balik natin doon, wala talagang mangyari because we are not in the possession of the sea. Sa kanila eh," Duterte said.

(We do not send gray ships to, war ships there, just to show something to Filipinos, but no matter how frequent we return there, nothing will happen because we are not in the possession of the sea. They have it.)

Despite China's assertive maritime agenda in the area, Poling said Duterte's "not going to suddenly change who he is."

"He's not gonna change his opinion on China or on the US. The best that can be hope for those who want a stronger policy on West Philippine Sea is that he will just kind of stay out of the way of the DND (Department of National Defense), AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) and DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs)," he said.

Manila's top diplomat and defense chief have demanded Beijing for weeks to pull out its ships monitored to be in Philippine waters since early March. Duterte did not speak about the issue until Monday.

On Tuesday, Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said there is a status quo on the maritime disputes with China because the Philippines has no military power to take back the seized features, including some artificial islands in the West Philippine Sea.

"Modus vivendi na lang po tayo ‘no, na nakaukit naman sa papel kung ano iyong ating karapatan. At bagama’t hindi natin napapatupad ito ay hindi naman mabubura ng Tsina iyan," said Roque.

(It's modus vivendi for us. But our rights are already assured on paper. But while we cannot enforce those, China cannot erase the same.)

"It’s not the Philippines saying, we cannot enforce it. It’s just the nature of international law sa ngayon na wala tayong (now that there is no) enforcement mechanism when it comes to arbitral awards," he added.

For Poling, inaction on the West Philippine Sea issue threatens the livelihood of Filipino fishermen and food security of millions of Filipinos.

The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, a major trade route that is also believed to hold valuable oil and gas deposits.

"The South China Sea is the most productive fishing ground on the planet. An estimated 12 percent of all the fish in the world are caught in the South China Sea. Mostly, they are caught by small-scale fisher boats from the Philippines and from Vietnam," Poling said.

"Certainly, what China is doing is taking the livelihood away from the tens of thousands of Filipino fishers who have been operating these waters for generations and threatening the food security of millions of Filipino citizens."

Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio challenged Duterte to speak up against China's incursions in the West Philippine Sea, saying China is not listening to his alter egos.

"China will listen only to the leader of the nation. If the President is silent, then China will continue," said Carpio, who was part of the Philippine team that argued the country's rights in the West Philippine Sea before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

While Duterte speaking out would not guarantee that Chinese vessels would leave, the "Chinese will take us seriously."

"They will feel the heat because they will lose a friend if the President will speak," Carpio said.

Beijing claims the South China Sea in entirety despite having no legal basis, as adjudged by the UN-backed arbitration court in 2016.

Duterte forged friendlier relations with China when he assumed power in 2016, temporarily setting aside the maritime disputes in favor of economic aid and investments.

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