One of the most memorable lines during last year’s Philippine Presidential Debates was when the eventual winner, Rodrigo Duterte, pledged to ride a jet ski to confront intruding Chinese vessels in the Spratlys and plant a Philippine flag on the disputed islands. The answer was odd and quite comical, but generated applause from his faithful for the seemingly tough stance against Chinese intrusion into Philippine territory.
Less than a year later, the tough-talking ex-mayor of Davao seems to have adopted a more docile approach to Chinese maritime incursions. This week, the Defense Department disclosed that Chinese ships had been surveying the Benham Rise for about three months last year. The underwater plateau – with a total land area of 13 million hectares – was granted part of Philippine territory by the United Nations last 2012.
The development presents a cause for concern given that on another front the Philippines is already embroiled in a long-running territorial dispute with the same global superpower, in the Spratlys. The Benham Rise has a much greater land area, with an even better potential for natural resources. Asserting our sovereignty over it and enforcing our exclusive rights over its’ resources should be a top priority of the Duterte administration, given that he portrays himself as an ardent nationalist who is staunchly anti-imperialist – as shown by his vocal resentment of U.S. influence over the Philippines.
What we have seen on the other hand is a feeble hold of our territorial stake. The Philippine President instructed the Philippine Navy to accost the intruding foreign ships but “in a friendly manner“. A day later, Duterte shocked even perhaps his loyal supporters by claiming that Chinese ships “are allowed to survey Benham Rise” – directly contradicting his own Defense Secretary who had expressed his concern over the presence of foreign ships. The Head-of-State instead corroborated the statement given by the Chinese Foreign Ministry that the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department had given them the green light to survey the area.
The clash in statements between the Chief Executive and his Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, tells us that information was withheld from the latter. The reason for the secrecy is suspicious – why suppress national security information from the head of national defense, especially one as significant as this? Either President Duterte felt complacent about this development and did not feel it was big enough of a concern to share with his defense chief, or there is more to this story than what has been reported.
What is clear however, is that President Duterte has evidently warmed up to the Chinese government after being pampered with billions of dollars in loans and investments. It seems that in turn he has become more compliant with their dubious activities in Philippine territory – a far cry from that stern promise he made last May of confronting the Chinese Navy himself riding a jet ski.
While Duterte would like to call his stance diplomatic, he can only give in so much before another starts calling it treason.