President Rodrigo Duterte is known worldwide for his no-holds barred, tough-talking persona. He ordered his police force to show no mercy to drug dealers, he tells his military to be relentless against insurgents and even threatened corrupt members of the bureaucracy with death if they do not straighten up. Now, all that tough-talking seems to have waned. Amid reports of the Chinese Navy building military installations in the disputed Panatag Shoal, President Duterte has publicly backed down from challenging the Asian Superpower.
It was in 2012 when China seized Panatag Shoal and restricted access from Filipino fishermen. Also known as Scarborough Shoal, the disputed land formation is a mere 127 miles from Luzon island in the Philippines. The area was a popular fishing destination for fishermen residing in Pangasinan province, before Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked them from traversing to the shoal in five years ago.
The loss of sovereignty over Panatag Shoal was a focal point of criticisms of then-President Benigno Aquino’s foreign policy. Duterte’s predecessor was perceived to be weak and ineffectual in handling with foreign intervention on what is clearly Filipino territory. Hence, this border dispute was among the key issues discussed during the previous Presidential Elections. It was when President Duterte made his noteworthy “Jet Ski Pledge”, his attempt to appear the toughest among all other candidates in dealing with China.
The then-mayor of Davao promised to charge to Scarborough Shoal riding a jet ski while holding the Philippine flag, in order to confront China himself. That remark sounded comedic, but was praised by his supporters as a testament of the tough stance he will have in dealing with the maritime dispute. That tough-talking persona seems to have been a mere facade, as confronted with reports that the Chinese are planning to build a monitoring station on the shoal emerges President Duterte dismissed any intervention by saying: “we cannot stop [the Chinese] from doing that.”
The President explained that his options are limited, adding that if he would respond militarily the move will provoke China and the Philippines “will lose all our military and police force.” This defeatist attitude is a far cry from what the Filipino people were promised during the Presidential debates. The decision to lay down while China formally occupies the shoal will be a shock to foreign observers as well, President Duterte has the mandate to be assertive in dealing with Scarborough – the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea ruled in favor of the Philippines with regards to sovereign rights over Scarborough. Sadly, that landmark ruling should have given Duterte all the justification he needs to be tough on China at Panatag Shoal – sadly, he has cowered out.
There are ongoing disputes happening the Spratlys Group of Islands, a chain of islets and atolls just south of Panatag Shoal which the Philippines also have a presence in along with China and a few other countries. Will President Duterte finally unleash his tough guy antics on Beijing? Or will he continue to surrender our sovereign rights to even more disputed territories?