By J.C. Gotinga
Manila’s 2016 victory against Beijing in an arbitration case over the South China Sea was final but the Philippines has not shut the door on diplomacy to settle territorial disputes, President Rodrigo Duterte said in his last State of the Nation speech Monday.
In a nationally televised speech to a joint session of Congress that ran three hours, the 76-year-old president also defended his administration’s controversial crackdown on illegal drugs and called for prayers against the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the Philippines hard.
Duterte told lawmakers that he could not have been more assertive about territorial claims in the contested maritime region because of the risk of war with Beijing.
“We will assert what is rightfully ours and fight for what is rightfully due to the Filipino people,” Duterte said.
Since taking office five years ago and with one year left before his single term expires, Duterte has been criticized at home for not doing enough to assert the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that affirmed Manila’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea as valid.
He said he had made the case of the Philippine victory before the United Nations last year, but that he could not do anything about it when China chose to ignore the international arbitration court’s ruling.
“What else do you want? What will I do with a document that (does) not bind China because they were never a part of that arbitration? There was really no arbitration at all because only the Philippine side was heard,” the president said.
Even as the Philippines continues to scale up maritime awareness and defense capabilities, Duterte said, “we will not close our doors on diplomacy.”
“Because that is how disputes are settled, and never by force,” he said.
He reiterated that the Philippines could not afford to go to war with China because of Beijing’s military superiority.
“It would be a massacre if I go and fight a war now. We are not yet a competent and able enemy of the other side,” Duterte said.
He said he had championed an “independent foreign policy” that brought the Philippines out of “the shadows of the great powers.”
Since Duterte took office in 2016, Manila has agreed to bilateral negotiations with Beijing on the South China Sea dispute, a move that critics said put Manila at a disadvantage in light of the arbitral award that would have given the Philippines some leverage.
Critics of the president including former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who helped argue Manila’s arbitration case, have said Beijing could be coaxed into respecting the award if the Philippines rallied international support for its enforcement.
“I do not wish to insult these people who are pushing me [to do] more than what I can handle, but what do they want? To wage war, do something? Do you want war against China?” Duterte said.
On the issue of the war on drugs – his administration’s flagship policy – Duterte claimed it has been a success.
“Our unyielding campaign led to the surrender of millions of drug dependents and neutralization, capture and prosecution of thousands of drug personalities,” he said in his speech.
Still, Duterte acknowledged, he would not be able to end the scourge of drugs even after more than 8,000 suspected addicts and dealers had died in extrajudicial killings linked to the counter-narcotics campaign, according to statistics from police.
In June, then-International Criminal Court chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda sought an investigation into allegations that the campaign has led to crimes against humanity.
“Following a thorough preliminary investigation process, the available information indicates that members of the Philippine National Police and others acting in concert with them, have unlawfully killed between several thousand and tens of thousands of civilians during the time,” Bensouda said a day before she left her post.
Duterte’s spokesman responded at the time by criticizing Bensouda and saying Manila would not cooperate with any ICC inquiry.
Despite that assertion, the nation’s highest court announced it had ruled that Duterte’s order to end membership in the ICC did not excuse the government from cooperating with the probe.
On Monday, Duterte referred to the ICC as he defended his drug war.
“I never denied – and the ICC can record it – those who destroy my country, I will kill you, and those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country,” he said.
‘Pray for salvation’
About two hours into his speech – the longest by a Philippine president in recent memory – Duterte addressed the government’s efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although his administration had, to some extent, caught up with the demand for COVID-19 testing and treatment, Duterte said he “really [does] not know what to do,” especially with the highly contagious Delta variant having reached the Philippines.
“Maybe we just have to pray for salvation,” he said.
Duterte also talked about his administration’s infrastructure and agricultural projects, along with the establishment of a more substantially autonomous territory for the Philippines Muslim population in the southern Mindanao region.
In addition, he spoke about his government’s anti-communist campaign and called on police and the military to double down on the insurgents and “kill” them if necessary.
As expected, thousands of protesters took to the streets outside the House chamber where Duterte delivered his address.
Despite rain and COVID-19 restrictions, at least 3,000 protesters attended rallies throughout Monday, according to national police chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar. About 15,000 police and other law enforcers stood guard around the protesters.
The rallies centered on the theme “Goodbye, Duterte,” as the president’s term in office ends in June 2022. Many carried signs with the message Wakasan Na – “let’s end it.”
They criticized Duterte’s potential plan to run for vice president – the constitution prevents him from seeking a second term as president – in the elections set for May 2022. Duterte has said he would run for vice-president if that meant immunity from lawsuits.
Jojo Riñoza, Luis Liwanag and Basilio Sepe in Manila contributed to this report.