Not so Strong Man: Duterte Buckles Under Chinese Pressure Amid Maritime Row

Not so Strong Man: Duterte Buckles Under Chinese Pressure Amid Maritime Row
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What you need to know

Officials in the Philippines initially came on strong demanding China be sanctioned for an incident at Recto Bank, while Duterte kept his lips sealed. Days later Duterte finally dismissed the whole thing as 'a little maritime accident' and the administration fell in line, much to the ire of citizens. But — asks Michael Beltran — who is pulling whose strings here?

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has painted himself as a fierce no-nonsense leader able to decisively tackle the hardest problems. He has made bold statements against global superpowers in the past, garnering him praise for his daringness especially when he started his tenure in 2016.

However, the recent collision between a Chinese trawler and a Filipino fishing vessel highlighted a stark contrast in how Duterte approaches Beijing. On June 9, 22 Filipino fishermen reportedly had their ship capsized after a Chinese vessel rammed into them. They remained in the water for four hours before being rescued by nearby Vietnamese sailors.

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In this undated June 2019 handout photo, provided by Arlinda dela Torre via the Department of Agriculture, the pieces of the damaged Filipino fishing boat F/B Gimver 1 at sea in the area where it was rammed by a Chinese vessel at the waters of Recto Bank. Filipino fishermen said a Chinese vessel rammed their anchored boat on Sunday night then abandoned them as the boat sank.

The incident was made more controversial because it occurred at the Recto Bank of the West Philippine Sea -- a territory which the Permanent Court of Arbitration settled as being within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, but which China is continuing to claim ownership of. Despite lamentations from the public demanding accountability and reparations for what the fishermen claimed to be an intentional attack, the president dismissed the case as a mere accident eight days later.

The public demands make sense given that the president has previously presented himself as someone who doesn't back down from international conflict situations. During the first year of his term he declared that the Philippines would have an "independent" foreign policy "separating" from its traditional ally the U.S. He also claimed that should China attempt any encroachment near the West Philippine Sea, he would personally ride a jet ski to the sandbars and islands to plant the Philippine flag. Duterte even recently threatened war with Canada over disagreements regarding the Philippines receiving waste from the north American nation. Last month, 2,400 tons of trash were sent back to Canada after a local court determined the waste was mislabeled and hence illegal.

And yet, these above-mentioned instances only serve to make his recent defeatism to China more dumbfounding. The Philippine government has not exactly been at odds with the Asian superpower, rather it has shown increasing friendliness both politically and economically. This latest row though looks to test if these ties can remain firm amid intense scrutiny from the public eye.

Hive mind

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo's initial comment on the matter on June 13 was that the incident could lead to the Philippines cutting ties with China. Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr also tweeted a condemnation of the Chinese vessel and commendation of the Vietnamese rescuers upon learning of the incident.

However, there was a drastic shift in tone a week after the news broke. On June 16 the head of the Department of Energy, Alfonso Cusi, visited his native province of Mindoro, where the fishermen hail from, and dismissed the damage to their boat as "just a graze" claiming this was proof that ramming into the boat was unintentional on the side of the Chinese.

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In this undated June 2019 handout photo, provided by the Arlinda dela Torre via the Department of Agriculture, the damaged Filipino fishing boat F/B Gimver 1 sits on shore in San Jose, Occidental Mindoro province, Philippines.

Then on June 17 Duterte himself belittled the collision. Around the same time, Panelo was already insinuating at a press briefing that there was still a lack of evidence to categorically determine that the blame should be on the Chinese side and that the Philippine government had yet to get their story.

Shortly after on June 19, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana changed his story from having condemned the collision on June 13 to echoing Duterte's pronouncements of the hullabaloo as being rather unfortunate.

When pressed on his previous statement on possibly 'cutting ties' diplomatically Lorenzana backtracked by explaining that the Filipino public and state should not be so hasty.

It should be noted that the president and his men were not the only ones to use this kind of rhetoric. There are clear parallels between Chinese and Filipino officials. Chinese Foreign Minister Geng Shuang (耿爽) also downplayed the sinking of the Filipino boat on June 13 as an 'ordinary maritime accident' a few days before Duterte would spout something strikingly similar.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his speech during the 121st Philippine Navy Anniversary at Sangley point, Cavite province, Philippines June 17, 2019. In the speech Duterte called the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat that was hit by a Chinese vessel at the Recto Bank "a little maritime accident" and urged calm amid an outcry.

Like Panelo, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua (趙鑑華) made similar statements which were revealed by the spokesperson at the Malacañang press briefing on June 13. Zhao said that the matter should be thoroughly investigated by both parties, trying to avoid pinning the culpability on anyone.

Who takes cues from who? It would seem that Chinese officials were quicker to the podium with the minimizing line than their Filipino counterparts and that once President Duterte spoke on the matter, the entire Philippine bureaucracy followed suit. But it still begs the question: Why would the 'strongman' stand so feebly amid all of this?

Big payoff

One of the reasons why Duterte is so keen to preserve affable relations with China is because of the business that comes along with playing to the good side of an economic giant. After its state visit to China in April, the Philippine government clinched US$12.3 billion in foreign investments. In addition, Duterte's flagship infrastructure program dubbed the Build Build Build (BBB) hinges on Chinese investments as well.

Consisting of 75 flagship projects nationwide that will radically reshape the urban landscape of the country, the BBB is worth US$36 billion, of which US$14 billion will come from Chinese investments according to a report done by think tank IBON Foundation. This is apart from the already noticeable increase of Chinese firms popping up around the country such as popular tourist destination Boracay island.

The Philippines's record for international trade in 2018 reveals that China also became the top trading partner in that year. China accounted for 16.6% of or US$14 billion of the total trade according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

On the June 24, when asked if Malacañang would do anything to prevent Chinese maritime incursions in the disputed sea territories which is considered an exclusive economic zone. Duterte said the Philippines could not do anything as the two countries are "friends."

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A protester holds a sign that bears a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a rally outside the Chinese Consulate at the financial district of Makati, Manila to mark Philippine Independence Day on June 12, 2019.
No love lost

A series of protests has been waged since the incident, all have been directed against what the protesters regard as a cowardly and puppet-like response to the crisis, and growing subservience to Chinese regional interests.

Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, a critic of Duterte in the past, says that allowing the Chinese to continue to roam the West Philippine Sea freely is unconstitutional. Especially in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in which the impact took place. In a statement released on the 26th he said that according to the constitution "'use and enjoyment' of fish in our EEZ is reserved exclusively for Filipinos." He added that the constitution mandates the president to be a protector of the nation's marine wealth.

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A protester burns mock Chinese flags at Manila's Rizal park on June 18, 2019.

On June 18 Labor network Defend Job Philippines staged a burning of 22 Chinese flags in honor of the 22 fishermen who were left to fend for themselves after the purported attack on their vessel.

"Contrary to the strongman persona that Duterte has been projecting against his critics, his weak positions against Chinese aggression and bullying has only exposed him as a pro-China and an anti-Filipino president," said Christian Lloyd Magsoy, the Defend Job Philippines spokesperson, said in statement sent to The News Lens.

Renato Reyes Jr, secretary general of Bagong Alayansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) or Bayan, the largest coalition of progressive groups in the country slammed the president's weak response in a statement on Facebook on June 12.

"Duterte is inviting China to plunder our resources because we are supposed 'friends.' On the incident at Recto Bank, China committed two crimes. Fishing in our EEZ and deserting Filipino fishermen when they were in peril. These matters should not be glossed over if there is to be a genuine investigation into what happened."

The group also noted that President Duterte's strongman projection in the past has largely been a ruse. The group notes that even his supposed opposition to the US has been weakened by allowing foreign military bases to remain and foreign multinationals to plunder natural resources, and fostering a friendlier relationship with Donald Trump.

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A protester holds a placard during a rally outside the Chinese Consulate in the financial district of Makati, Manila on June 12.

Fisherfolk are particularly incensed. At a rally outside the Chinese embassy in Manilla on June 12, Tata Pido Gonzales of Pamalakaya (National Federation of Small Fisherfolk in the Philippines) said "we risk our lives in our work. It's one thing to have to go against nature but it's another when the danger happens because our country is kneeling to a foreign intervener like China."

All these groups, along with others, have joined together on several occasions to hold huge protests in front of the Chinese consulate, fanning the flames of a public developing more indignation toward Chinese interventionism.

It remains to be seen whether the growing dissent can change the government's tune -- President Duterte on June 27 belittled the protection the Constitution offers in the EEZ as "senseless". However, this simply shows how a strongman can wield his power against the wishes of his own people, but fold in the face of a bigger bully.

Read next: Is 2019 the Breakthrough Year for U.S.-Taiwan Relations?

Editor: Cat Thomas (@TheNewsLens)

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