MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 17 May) – Was President Duterte joking when, during a debate in the 2016 presidential election, he said he would ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea and drive away the Chinese who have grabbed a couple of isles and shoals within the country’s exclusive economic zone?
To the President’s consternation, dismissing his campaign promise as a joke has failed to diffuse the heat of accusations he has relented to Chinese designs in the WPS.
Now, let’s concede that he was joking and 16 million voters fell for it. Yet, the implications are no joking matter. It means losing our exclusive rights to the resources in that area. It means killing the livelihood of several Filipino fishermen and their families. It means endangering the country’s food security.
At best, Duterte, apparently to fend off criticisms, has flip-flopped, occasionally saying he would assert the decision of The Hague Tribunal, but insinuating surrender to Beijing most of the time. But his diatribes against retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and other critics, the acerbic remarks against the United States, and threats to junk the Visiting Forces Agreement suggest where his position really lies.
Duterte’s ambivalence though would set a dangerous precedent: it could embolden China to extend its territory-grabbing scheme to the Benham Rise, which is believed to be rich in resources, too.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddyboy Locsin Jr. and National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana may have issued statements contradicting the chief executive’s stand. However, Duterte’s pronouncements carry more weight in assessing what the country’s policy really is concerning the resource-rich maritime territory.
Duterte must be thinking by now that he should have been more nuanced in his approach to the issue. He could have used the VFA card in the country’s favor. Failing that, it’s awkward at this stage for him to court US support against Chinese aggression. His rashness has thinned his options amid mounting clamor to assert the Philippines’ legal rights in the WPS.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)