By Jeoffrey Maitem and Dennis Jay Santos
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte challenged the United States to send a naval fleet to the archipelago under a mutual defense treaty, amid pressure to act more forcefully toward Chinese incursions in Filipino territory in the South China Sea.
The outburst-prone president made the comment during off-hand remarks to a pastor in southern Davao City on Tuesday, while facing domestic criticism over his handling of Beijing’s expansionism in the disputed sea. Duterte has been under pressure particularly after a recent incident when a Chinese trawler sank a smaller Philippine fishing boat in the maritime region, stranding 22 Filipino sailors at sea.
In March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Manila to assure Filipinos that Washington would back the Philippines militarily over Chinese expansionism in the sea by invoking a nearly 70-year-old bilateral defense pact, if necessary.
In his latest remarks about the South China Sea, Duterte said he was prepared to use the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in calling on the United States to come to his country’s aid, because, in his words, the Philippines simply was “no match” against the Chinese.
But any strong stand taken against China would certainly not please the Asian military giant, he warned.
“I’m calling now [on] America. I’m invoking the R.P.-U.S. pact. I would like America to gather all their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now. And I will join them,” Duterte said during his meeting with the clergyman, a transcript of which was released by the presidential office on Wednesday. The president was referring to the 1951 treaty.
“I will ride on the boat with the admiral of the U.S. But I will drag along this Carpio and the rest of Albert. When the Americans say, ‘we’re here now,’ ready, I will press the (button),” he added, alluding to former Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and ex-Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales.
The two had recently filed a lawsuit at the International Criminal Court (ICC) against China’s government and Chinese President Xi Jinping, alleging that Beijing was implementing a systematic plan to control the South China Sea.
The president was likely bluffing in his latest remarks, a Philippine analyst observed.
Duterte made them the same day that Filipino defense officials and diplomats wrapped up an annual bilateral strategic review meeting in Manila with their U.S. counterparts. The two sides afterward affirmed their longtime alliance, which is bound by the defense pact that calls on both countries to come to each other’s aid in times of war.
According to the treaty, that includes armed attacks “on the metropolitan territory of either of the parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”
If Duterte was serious in his comments, that would affect the country’s diplomatic ties with China as well as trade relations, said Ramon Beleno III, who heads the department of political science and history at Ateneo De Davao University in Davao City.
“It will not make China happy … I think he is just bluffing,” Beleno told BenarNews.
He said Duterte was forced to take such a stance to soften a public perception that he was siding with China.
Duterte already repeatedly said that he would not stand up to Beijing, Beleno said, noting that last month the president admitted he gave Xi a verbal go-ahead for Chinese fishermen to enter Philippine waters, in what many observers claimed was a violation of the Filipino constitution.
That alone was a violation of the charter, Baleno said, adding however that Duterte would likely not face impeachment because he had gained control of both houses of Congress.
High Court judge: Non-violent ways to win over China
Meanwhile, Supreme Court judge Antonio Carpio responded last weekend to an earlier challenge by Duterte to propose a plan to enforce a ruling by an international arbitration court on July 12, 2016, which invalidated Beijing’s vast claims to the South China Sea.
In a speech Carpio enumerated several options that do not require violence or resorting to war.
“My response is yes, Mr. President, there is a formula – and not only one but many ways of enforcing the arbitral award without going to war with China, using only the rule of law. Let me mention a few of these, and I hope the President will implement them as he had promised,” Carpio said Sunday during an address at a graduation ceremony at the Ateneo Law School in Manila, according to the Philippine news reports.
Carpio said as ruled by the arbitral tribunal other claimants can enter into a convention declaring that no geological feature in the contested areas generate an exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and there are only territorial seas from the geological features that are above water at high-tide.
This convention, he explained, would leave China isolated as the only disputant state claiming EEZs from the Spratlys, a chain of islands and islets believed to be sitting atop vast mineral deposits. The Spratlys are claimed by both countries, as well as Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
At the same time, reports quoted him as saying the Philippines could send on patrol the navy’s 10 new multirole-response ships, which were donated by Japan for use by the Philippine Coast Guard, to assert the country’s sovereign rights.
Carpio also cited another option in which the government could file with the United Nations an extended continental shelf claim in the West Philippine Sea beyond the 200-nautical mile EEZ off the coast of Luzon, where China is the only opposite coastal state.
Beijing, Carpio emphasized, could not invoke historic rights under its nine-dash line claim, which has already been ruled without legal effect by the arbitral tribunal, because the extended Chinese continental shelf does not overlap with the extended continental shelf of the Philippines.
“The Filipino people should not be intimidated by national leaders who peddle a false option that either we go to war with China or submit to China. This false option should be discredited once and for all. This false option does not deserve any further space or airing in the nation’s political discourse,” the Supreme Court judge said, according to reports.
“We cannot just decry the absence of an enforcement mechanism under UNCLOS. We cannot adopt a defeatist attitude and just sit idly by and let China seize what international law has declared to be our own exclusive economic zone,” Carpio added, referring to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Legal cover for China’s expansionism
Carlos Zarate, a member of the opposition in the House of Representatives, said Duterte appeared to be preparing to lay out the legal cover for China’s “expansionism” in the mineral-rich sea when the leader delivers his annual “State of the Nation” address before Congress next week.
Although Duterte enjoys widespread support among the masses, many Filipinos think the president should assert the country’s sovereignty, Zarate said, citing current opinion polls.
Duterte’s allies, he said, were pushing to amend the constitution and delete provisions protecting the country from the entry of foreign interests – specifically a rule stipulating that any exploration and use of natural resources can be carried out only by a majority-owned Filipino firm.
“This means that there will no longer be a constitutional barrier to President Duterte undertaking joint exploration with the Chinese government or 100 percent Chinese-owned corporations,” Zarate alleged.
Proposed changes to the charter also would delete a provision requiring the president to notify Congress about every contract entered into by the government, a scenario that would “open up the country to verbal agreements with China allowing China’s fishing in the West Philippine Sea,” the lawmaker said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
“We cannot sacrifice the future of the next generation of Filipinos in exchange for our loyalties to a temporary president,” he said.