Mindanao, Philippines – Standing before a few hundred studio audience members and tens of millions more watching from home, then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte swore in an April 2016 televised debate that he was willing to die, if only to assert the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea.
“It has long been my desire to become a hero. So, if they kill me, then I would leave it all to you here in the Philippines to mourn for me,” Duterte said in Filipino, as he vowed to sail in the high seas on a jet ski to confront China, and plant the Philippine flag in the disputed islands in the Spratlys and Scarborough.
Halfway through his six-year term in office, the folksy charm that propelled Duterte to the presidency has largely remained intact, with him enjoying an 80 percent satisfaction rating. But the swagger he once directed towards China has long fizzled, replaced with professions of love for its leader, Xi Jinping.
As the Philippines on Friday marks the third year anniversary of The Hague arbitral court ruling, which handed Manila a legal victory against Beijing in the South China Sea, Duterte now finds himself being accused by political opponents and critics of turning his back on his country, and gambling the Philippines’ territorial integrity to “appease” his newfound ally, China.
Akbayan, an opposition political party, announced on Tuesday that it would join a group of Filipino fishermen and other groups in filing an impeachment complaint against Duterte for his “deliberate and wrongful breach” of the Constitution.
Former Foreign Affairs chief Albert del Rosario also warned that Duterte “can be impeached” for allowing China to fish in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The EEZ is considered to be part of the Philippines territory, with its resources “exclusively” reserved for Filipinos, according to its constitution.
Their comments came after Duterte disclosed for the first time in late June that he and Xi, the president of China, had a “verbal agreement” allowing Chinese fishermen inside the Philippines’ EEZ.
Siding with China
Duterte said the deal formed the basis for his decision not to drive away the Chinese fishermen. A Chinese vessels was later involved in a boat-ramming incident on June 9, which caused the sinking of a fishing boat with 22 Filipino crew who were left struggling to stay alive in the high seas for hours.
The details of the incident remain contested by Filipino and Chinese officials.
But critics accuse Duterte of siding with China, after he downplayed the near-tragedy at sea as an accident, despite reports pointing to a deliberate attack by suspected Chinese militia.
Media revelations that the Chinese boat abandoned the beleaguered Filipino fishermen, in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, further angered the Philippine public.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio chastised Duterte, saying the deal he reached with China was unconstitutional.
Carpio said the president should have asserted its legal rights under the international law following the latest incident within the Philippines’ EEZ.
‘Trial of the century’
It was on July 12, 2016 that the court of arbitration in The Hague said China had “no legal basis … to claim historic rights” to resources falling within its “nine-dash line”, which encompasses almost all of the 3.6 million sq km sea lane. It also emphasised the Philippines’ “sovereign rights” over its 200-nautical mile EEZ.
The case was seen in the Philippines as the “trial of the century”, and its outcome was welcomed not just in Manila, but also in other Southeast Asian capitals wary of China’s rise and which also have their own claims in the South China Sea.
The court’s decision, however, was rejected by China, which had refused to participate in the years-long proceedings. China’s official news agency Xinhua hit out at the verduct, describing it as an “ill-founded” ruling that was “naturally null and void”.
Abigail Valte, a lawyer who was part of the Philippine delegation at The Hague, told Al Jazeera that the hearing and its result was “a very proud moment” for the country.
“I could see long years of preparation coming to fruition. The entire delegation really prepared to make sure we could present our case well. It was a very proud moment,” said Valte, who also served as the spokesman of then-President Benigno Aquino, who filed the case against China.
‘So much wasted time’
In a scathing opinion published in a national broadsheet, Valte said that three years after the victory, there is “so much wasted time”, because of the Duterte administration’s “new-fangled friendship with China”.
“It has done nothing to improve the tense situation at sea, where our fishermen continue to be harassed by Chinese maritime militia, same with militarisation of the islands,” read the article, which Valte shared with Al Jazeera.
Jay Batongbacal, a lawyer and maritime expert at the University of the Philippines, said that three years on, the “efficacy” of The Hague ruling “has been undermined” because of the actions taken by the Duterte administration.
He said statements made by the president and other officials “condone China’s actions that had been declared to be in contravention of its obligations under international law”.
“President Duterte’s position, giving blanket permission for Chinese fishing in the Philippines’ EEZ, is akin to a waiver of the Philippines’ regulatory jurisdiction and of its natural resources to a foreign power,” he said.
Still, it would be hard to file an impeachment case against the president, Batongbacal said, adding that the “evidenciary challenges make it difficult to support a charge”, as there was no written agreement that can be presented as proof in a trial.
Opposition Senator Franklin Drilon, a frequent Duterte critic, also conceded that proving the president’s guilt during an impeachment would be problematic.
“The primary evidence would either be a document signed, or a verbal testimony. There is no document. The verbal testimony is between the President and Xi Jinping. So, tell me, who would be witness to that?” he was quoted by news reports as saying.
“The president will not testify against his own interest in an impeachment proceeding.”
Still, the senator called on the Duterte administration to press the Philippines’ maritime rights against China, and urged the filing of a case against the Chinese crew involved in the boat-ramming incident, saying non-action could be interpreted as an “acquiescence”.
The Philippine public also appears to strongly support the country’s legal standing against Beijing. A survey result published on July 10 found that 93 percent of Filipinos found it important for the Duterte administration to regain control of its islands in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, Jose Antonio Custodio, of the Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies, a Manila-based think-tank, said the Philippines was now considered by its neighbouring countries as an “enabler of China”.
“This is can be seen in Manila’s refusal to go against Beijing’s wishes and in foot dragging in multilateral efforts to address the issue,” Custodio said, referring to the proposed South China Sea Code of Conduct deal being negotiated between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“The Duterte administration sees China as its insurance against a backlash from the international community once its sordid human rights record is investigated,” he added.
“Beijing will provide the protection to Duterte and his administration to weather the international pressure against the Philippines.”
As tensions rise in the South China Sea, Custodio noted, that the Philippines’ traditional ally, the United States, is now trying “a more aggressive” strategy, including freedom-of-navigation patrols, assistance to allied countries and economic pressure on China.
“The US has made China feel its presence, and if the Philippines refuses to complain, then it is either a fool for not wanting to defend its own territory, or a tool of China by trying to belittle the value of multilateral efforts.
Duterte has long maintained that he will not risk going to war with China, by aggressively pressing Beijing about Manila’s territorial claim.
That is, however, a “false choice” intended “to silence criticism and ensure submission to government decision and policy without question”, Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines said.
As the controversy continues to brew, Duterte promised to address the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea in his annual address to the nation on July 22.
The president’s spokesman, Salvador Panelo, said Philippines won’t be “hasty” in dealing with the disputed areas “but instead will do everything legal and feasible”.
“But the reality again, as repeated by the president, they (China) are in possession of the disputed islands,” Panelo said.