After exhibiting a tolerance that his critics misinterpreted as weakness, President Rodrigo Duterte last week took a strong stand against Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea, where Beijing has deployed more than 200 vessels—some of them manned by coast guards and militia—around Pag-asa Island over the last few months.
“Let us be friends, but do not touch Pag-asa Island and the rest,” the President said at a rally in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
“If you make moves there, that’s a different story. I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for a suicide mission,’” he added. “I’m just telling you [to] lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there.”
Earlier, the Department of Foreign Affairs, called the presence of about 275 Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa island “illegal,” saying it was an infringement of Philippine sovereignty.
The firm stand drew support from his critics and allies alike.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, for example, commended the President and urged everyone to rally around him.
“Our President is manifesting his own brand of leadership which in this instance is both appropriate and admirable,” Del Rosario said in a statement.
“Let us all be one in standing behind him,” said Del Rosario, who, along with former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, filed a case against Chinese President Xi Jinping, accusing him of committing crimes against humanity in connection with Beijing’s activities to gain control over most of the resource-rich South China Sea.
The President’s ally in the Senate, Senator Richard Gordon lashed out at Beijing, saying China was not a friend because its actions did not demonstrate the actions of a friend.
“China said they are our friends but a friend does not send... hundreds of vessels to harass our fishermen in our territory,” Gordon said.
In his almost three years in office, the President has opted for a pragmatic approach to the country’s giant neighbor to the north, preferring to discuss trade and development rather than territorial disputes.
Given the need to improve the economy, the President took a clearly less belligerent attitude toward China than did his predecessor, paving the way for improved ties with Beijing and access to Chinese investments and loans.
But last week, the President showed there are limits to his administration’s accommodation—and that these correctly begin where Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity are challenged. This is a strong, principled position that all Filipinos can get behind.