Rodrigo Duterte, the frontrunner in this year’s Philippine presidential election, promised voters in a debate Sunday night that he would ride into the disputed territories of the South China Sea on a jet ski and plant the flag of the Philippines on the Spratly Islands, where China has built advance military infrastructure.
“I’ll go down, riding a jet-ski, carrying a Filipino flag … and then I would say, ‘This is ours, and do what you want with me,'” Duterte said at the debate, half in English and half in Tagalog. “I would stake that claim, and if they want to [kill me], you know, I have the ambition of being the hero, too,” he concluded.
The Philippines holds sovereignty over the Spratly and some of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, where the Chinese government claims to have “indisputable sovereignty.” China has built artificial islands on reefs belonging to the Philippines and placed advanced weaponry there, as well as forcing Philippine fishermen out of waters exclusive to their country.
In response, the Philippines has taken its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and requested the assistance of the United States in patrolling its territory to keep China from expanding further. The American government has promised “regular” patrols of disputed areas with Philippine accompaniment.
Duterte criticized China for refusing to accept the decision of The Hague court. Chinese officials have asserted that they will ignore the decision, regardless of whether it comes down in their favor. His strong anti-China remarks contrast significantly with comments last week in which he threatened to sever ties with the United States completely, leaving the Philippines vulnerable to further Chinese invasion.
Duterte has come under fire for joking that an Australian gang rape victim was “so beautiful” that he “should have been first” to have sexual relations with her. “Son of a b**ch, what a waste,” he added. In response to criticism from the U.S. ambassador to Manila, Duterte threatened to give the United States (and Australia, whose top diplomat in the country also protested) “a shit,” and told both countries to “shut your mouth.” He said of their diplomatic ties, “If I become president, go ahead and sever it.”
Incumbent president, Benigno Aquino, issued a statement condemning Duterte’s calls to sever ties with Australia and the United States. “What benefit do we get from that? What is the value? If there is no value, why do you do this?” he asked.
Duterte has told women’s groups who objected to his remarks to “go to hell,” and during the debate Sunday night, he responded to criticism from other candidates by stating simply, “That is who I am.” He has staunchly refuted rumors that he has apologized for the remarks.
The first poll numbers published after Duterte’s rape remark was made public show that his public support has actually increased since his refusal to apologize. He is currently in the lead in the presidential race, with 33 percent of respondents supporting him, according to the SWS polling group, up from 27 percent in late March. Filipinos will go to the polls on May 9.
Many explain Duterte’s support through his 22-year career as the mayor of Davao City, known nationally as a hotbed for criminals and communist terrorists before Duterte became mayor. “The top three issues are one, poverty and jobs; two, peace and crime, especially drugs; and three, corruption and government services. … Duterte appeals to the frustration and despair of ordinary people on government actions regarding their lives,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, told Forbes.
During the debate Sunday night, Duterte responded to a question asking how he would respond to a son of his using drugs by asserting, “I will kill him.”