MANILA - Several opposition lawmakers on Friday hit the Duterte administration over its soft stance towards China amid unresolved disputes in the South China Sea.
This as the nation marked three years since a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal ruled in the Philippines' favor and invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
The case was filed by the Philippines in 2013 under then President Benigno Aquino III, but the ruling was handed down less than a month after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in July 2016.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros hit the administration for its "brand of selective sovereignty" as she urged Manila to assert its rights over the West Philippine Sea.
Hontiveros said the Philippines, under Duterte, “has defaulted on that victory.”
“Instead of defending our territory and standing by our fisherfolk, it continues to bow to China. This government’s brand of selective sovereignty is on full display," Hontiveros said in a statement.
It was an apparent reference to the administration's stance towards the incident between a Filipino fishing vessel and a Chinese ship on June 9. Malacañang cast doubt on the Filipino fishermen's narration that the Chinese had rammed their boat and abandoned them at sea, as China asserted that it was not intentional.
As he pursued closer trade ties with China, the world’s second largest economy, Duterte has chosen to set aside the landmark victory.
Critics say the President has reneged on his Constitutional duty to defend the country’s maritime rights by kowtowing to China, which has built artificial islands in parts of the sea close to the Philippine landmass and chased away Filipino fishermen in their traditional fishing grounds.
Hontiveros noted that the government has been too keen to assert sovereignty everytime its human rights records are being questioned in international fora, yet “when an actual issue of sovereign rights and territorial defense is literally at our shores, it is as silent as a watery grave.”
“Despite our historic triumph at the arbitral ruling, President Rodrigo Duterte has refused to find ways to stop the harassment of our fisherfolk and the plunder and destruction of our natural resources. Instead, it kowtows to the Chinese government's agenda in the region. This is appalling.”
Hontiveros called for an “audit” of the government’s supposed pro-China policies.
“Over the last three years we have seen China become more belligerent in the region, and if we do not reverse course now, future generations of Filipino fisherfolk will pay the price,” she said.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, president of the opposition Liberal Party, meanwhile said the Philippines, under Duterte, became toothless in enforcing its rights, unlike during his predecessor Aquino’s time.
“Before this pivot, we, like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, had been trying to protect our waters so that our fishermen can freely fish there and feed us,” Pangilinan said in a statement.
“The Philippines had stood up to the bullying by filing diplomatic protests, summoning Chinese ambassadors, arresting, prosecuting, fining, and eventually expelling Chinese (and other foreign) poachers. And there has not been any war.”
Duterte has said he does not want to go to war with China, as he defended his meek policy towards the regional power.
Detained Sen. Leila de Lima, meanwhile, is pushing for the declaration of July 12 as “West Philippine Sea Victory Day.”
She urged Filipinos to unite and reject the Duterte government’s pro-China stance.
“Sa panahong muling nilalapastangan ang ating pambansang dangal, ipinagkakait ng mga dayuhan ang kabuhayan at hinahayaang mapahamak at mamatay ang ating mga kababayan; sa termino ng isang Pangulo at mga kaalyado nitong maka-Tsino kaysa maka-Pilipino, kailangan nating tumindig bilang nagkakaisang mamamayan,” she said in a statement.
(At a time when our nation's integrity is trampled upon, when foreigners deprive our people of livelihood and let them die, during the term of a President and his allies who are more pro-China than pro-Filipino, we need to stand together as one people.)
A recent Social Weather Stations survey said nearly 90 percent of Filipinos believe the government should assert its claims in the West Philippine Sea and arrest Chinese fishermen destroying marine life in the disputed waters.
Of 1,200 adult respondents, 87 percent agreed that the "government should assert its right to disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration," the study showed.
Meanwhile, 5 percent of respondents did not agree, while 9 percent were undecided.