Filipinos Don’t Trust Duterte to Handle China
A maritime clash has left the public wondering why their president won’t stand up to Beijing.
It was after dark on June 9, and the FB GEM-VER, a Philippine fishing boat, was anchored somewhere near Reed Bank in the middle of the South China Sea when, suddenly, a Chinese vessel crashed into its side. As the fishing boat began to sink, the Chinese vessel flashed its lights, revealing 22 Filipino fishermen desperately trying to stay afloat amid the wreckage. The Chinese vessel shut off its lights, turned around, and promptly sailed away. Hours later, a Vietnamese fishing boat rescued the stranded sailors. Philippine-Chinese relations, however, are still lost at sea.
June 9, as it happens, has been Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day since 2002. Perhaps this is what motivated a series of pro-China statements from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in the following days. The Philippine public, however, wasn’t buying it. And now their friendship with China, if it ever existed, has gone out with a (boat-to-boat) bang.
The sea has long been a point of harsh contention between China and the Philippines. In 2013, tensions between the two countries became particularly heightened when Manila initiated an arbitration case against Beijing under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), opposing Beijing’s Nine-Dash demarcation line and “historic rights” to disputed territories. Three years later, in 2016, the case was ruled in the Philippines’ favor, but China declined to formally recognize the decision. That has left islands and features in the South China Sea such as Reed Bank legally Philippine but disputed by China.
Following the Philippines’ legal victory against China, which had been initiated under the previous administration, Duterte avoided provoking China further by terminating joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and entering a policy of appeasement with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But now, after Duterte has spent three years trying to quell tensions, the Philippines finds itself at odds with China yet again.
On June 12, shortly after the return of the 22 fishermen, Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana issued a statement strongly condemning China’s actions, calling the incident “cowardly.” Other current and former senior officials in the Philippine government made similar remarks, including Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who urged the president to launch an investigation. But Duterte remained silent.
The next day, Beijing issued a statement saying that the crash was an “ordinary maritime traffic accident,” and on June 14, it released another statement asserting that the Chinese vessel was “besieged by seven or eight Filipino boats.” This account, however, has since been contradicted by the findings of a joint investigation between the Philippines and China that concluded the incident was a “very serious marine casualty” in which the Chinese vessel failed to comply with the regulations of the UNCLOS.
Duterte finally broke his silence on June 17, seven days after the FB GEM-VER crew members returned to the Philippines. In a speech, the president echoed China’s statement, describing the event as a “little maritime accident,” and warned the public to “not make it worse.” Suddenly, the rhetoric of other Philippine government officials and cabinet secretaries began to change. Many started to offer doubts that the crash was intentional, and several, including Lorenzana, pulled back on their previous condemnations.
Other members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, however, have remained confident that the crash was not accidental and have continued to demand action from Duterte. But this is not the first time that Duterte and his military have been at odds over bilateral relations. While the president has been persistently pro-China and anti-United States, the armed forces have long expressed the opposite view, a division that even Duterte himself has found troubling.
Many Filipinos are skeptical about their government’s reaction to China’s claims. The captain and fishermen aboard the FB GEM-VER have spoken out and given emotional testimonies about the incident, recounting the horrors of the crash and subsequent abandonment by the Chinese vessel. “[Duterte] is the most talkative man in Southeast Asia, and he was quiet [for seven days],” said Richard Heydarian, a research fellow at National Chengchi University in Taiwan and the author of The Rise of Duterte. “It makes me highly suspicious that there was essentially an internal concerted effort to silence the defense establishment on this issue.”
In the weeks following Duterte’s speech, the Filipino public has grown increasingly agitated. Many Filipinos have criticized the government’s position on social media, calling the president “pathetic” and “Duterte Duwag,” or Cowardly Duterte. “The conversation about Duterte is shifting significantly,” Heydarian said. “Duterte really looks like a Chinese puppet in the eyes of a lot of people in the Philippines and beyond.”
Backlash against Duterte has become worse after presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo announced on July 1 that a “mutual” and “informal” agreement between Beijing and Manila would allow the presence of Chinese fishermen in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, effectively defying the ruling of the Philippine-China arbitration case under the Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the following days, several Filipinos publicly expressed a desire for Duterte’s impeachment, including the Pamalakaya fisherfolk federation and junior lawmakers, who have vowed to file an impeachment case against the president for his “violation of the Constitution, treason, and betrayal of public trust.” After hearing about threats of impeachment, Duterte responded in characteristic fashion: “Me? Will be impeached? I will jail them all. Try to do it and I will do it. Son of a bitch.”
According to Heydarian, as resentment against Duterte has risen, being critical of China is “gaining ground” within the Filipino public, including among many of Duterte’s own supporters. Even Duterte supporters who aren’t riding this newfound wave of Chinese criticism have remained silent. “A lot of his other supporters are just shutting up,” Heydarian said. “They’re not saying anything, because, in either direction—if they criticize Duterte, they go against the grain of their own tribe, but at the same time, they can’t defend him, because to them, it’s indefensible.”
Amid widespread backlash from the Philippine public, many wonder why Duterte is risking his reputation in order to remain unwaveringly pro-China. For Jay Batongbacal, the director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines, this is a product of the country’s “personality-based politics” and Duterte’s “psychology as a bully.” According to Batongbacal, Duterte is constantly raising the specter of war with China because “bullies kowtow to bigger bullies” and “Duterte is afraid of incurring the wrath of a power stronger than himself.”
Yet Duterte’s predecessor, former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, was staunchly critical of China’s behavior in the South China Sea and never faced the threat of war. Heydarian argues that Duterte’s Chinese apologism is explained by his exposure to Marxism in college, an ideological thread that has followed him throughout his political life and ultimately nurtured his pro-China and anti-American values. While Duterte has flip-flopped on communism as president due to pressures from the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Heydarian said that throughout his career, Duterte has struck a balance between “co-opting and bludgeoning communism at the same time under a highly personalized ideologically eclectic brand of populism.” But despite this, the president has always held a soft spot for China. This was intensified during U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration when Xi came to Duterte’s defense as the international community condemned his violent campaign against drugs. “The Obama administration pushed Duterte away and criticized him,” said Heydarian. “China embraced him.”
Duterte has pragmatic as well as personal reasons for favoring China over the United States. “Duterte deeply distrusts the American commitment to the Philippines,” said Gregory Poling, the director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “He knows he can’t win this thing in the South China Sea, so to him, it’s not worth the try.”
But to the Philippine public, the South China Sea is worth fighting for. “An overwhelming majority of Filipinos support a stronger stance of the South China Sea, but it used to be an abstract commitment that had never been at the forefront of their minds, for most,” Poling said. “This incident makes the issue much more concrete. These were 22 Filipino fishermen who almost died and were left to die by China. That’s not an abstract issue.”
A serious political shift may be in the making. “This has been weeks of headline news, and no one died,” Heydarian said. “Imagine if people were killed—there would probably be protests, and the cabinet minister would resign. Even with no one dying, Duterte’s really feeling the heat here. It sends a signal to China that Duterte may be your friend, but not the Filipino people.”
As the Philippines is moving away from Duterte and China, it may start to accelerate toward the United States. Perhaps the armed forces will seize the opportunity and push their pro-U.S. agenda, or public pressures will convince Duterte to offer some sop to public grievances. But with Duterte in power, this shift will not occur immediately. A change in executive leadership, or, more likely, another maritime incident may be what it takes to truly bring about geopolitical change. Yet still, the crash on June 9 has caused a political awakening in the Philippines. And while Duterte may continue to bow down to China, the Filipino people are now prepared to take a stand.