The swarming of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea has united most Filipinos, who oppose the incursion as an unacceptable case of bullying by our powerful neighbor to the north. But one of the few exceptions, it seems, is the President, who appears out of step with the rest of the nation when he remains silent in the face of Chinese aggression.
Since he came to power, President Duterte has touted his pivot to China as the country’s great hope to speed development with the help of Chinese investments and loans. In exchange for this “goodwill,” the President had set aside a landmark 2016 arbitral decision in favor of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China. Talking up his “independent foreign policy,” the President refused to say a negative word about China’s illegal military activities in the West Philippine Sea—including the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat that was rammed by a Chinese trawler in 2019—while maintaining a steady stream of angry anti-American rhetoric.
In the latest iteration of this reluctance to criticize China, the President said nothing about a report that Chinese Navy ships had allegedly harassed a Filipino fishing boat carrying some journalists who were heading to a Philippine-occupied shoal in the West Philippine Sea, waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Sought for comment, the President’s mouthpiece said the Palace would “defer” to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of National Defense to comment on the latest incident after Manila protested the presence of more than 200 ships belonging to China’s maritime militia at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) reef within the country’s EEZ.
The Chinese Coast Guard vessel with bow number 5101 chased the Filipino fishing boat for about an hour before turning around. But about145 miles from Palawan, two of the Chinese Navy’s Type 22 Houbei class fast-attack craft armed with missiles took over the chase for another 30 minutes before breaking away.
Perhaps taking their cue from the Palace, the military in a statement expressed concern over the incident but also appealed to journalists “to exercise prudence in the course of their job”–a vague suggestion that they shouldn’t have been in Philippine waters in the first place, or that they were somehow to blame for being harassed.
Thankfully, the Defense Department and the Foreign Affairs Department have been more vocal in their condemnation of the latest moves by China. It is the kind of backbone we wish to see from the Palace—but perhaps all the years of kowtowing to Beijing has had a detrimental effect on its occupant’s posture.