Dozens of angry Philippine protesters urged President Rodrigo Duterte to act more decisively against increasingly common illegal activity by Chinese vessels in the South China Sea on Tuesday, burning Chinese flags in response to the sinking of a Philippine ship revealed last week.
Both Philippine and Chinese authorities agree that a Chinese ship rammed into and sunk a Philippine fishing vessel near Recto Bank, a formation in the Spratly Islands, on June 9. The crew of the sunken ship claim the Chinese vessel sunk their ship and fled, leaving them to die until a Vietnamese ship’s crew saw the men floating in the water. Chinese authorities claim their ship only left after ensuring that the men had been rescued, but have not provided proof for this assertion.
Beijing has also not provided an explanation for what the ship was doing in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China claims most of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands that Vietnam and the Philippines both claim parts of. A 2016 international court ruling found China’s claims to the region illegal, but China has largely disregarded the ruling and continued to construct illegal military and civilian facilities in the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
The Philippine government initially reacted with outrage to the ship sinking and demanded justice. Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo called the incident “barbaric,” and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. promised a formal protest at Beijing. Duterte himself, however, has refused to discuss the incident save to protest that those demanding action should wait for more information.
The dozens of protesters who gathered in Manila on Tuesday complained that Duterte had been too “weak” with the Chinese.
“Contrary to what Mr. Duterte projects against his critics, his weak positions against Chinese aggression and bullying have only exposed him as a pro-China, anti-Filipino president,” Christian Lloyd Magsoy, a spokesman for the organizing group Defend Philippines Jobs, told the South China Morning Post. “China is not just robbing our waters, land, resources and sovereignty, but has long been taking our jobs away from us. What makes it worse is that our own government seems to be allowing these crimes against us to happen.”
The protesters held signs reading “End China Aggression” and burned 22 Chinese flags, one for each member of the crew of the sunken ship.
Recently polling has found that challenging China on its illegal claims in the region is extremely popular in the Philippines. The polling firm Social Weather Systems (SWS) found in November that 84 percent of respondents said it was “not right” for Duterte not to openly challenge China’s claims after the 2016 ruling. In March, SWS found a significant gap in support between approval of Duterte’s job as president overall versus approval of how he is handling the South China Sea dispute. Of those taking the survey, 81 percent said they were satisfied with Duterte overall, a “record-high satisfaction rating” according to SWS. Nearly 20 percent fewer people said they were satisfied with Duterte’s “‘defending Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.” The West Philippine Sea is a subregion of the South China Sea.
The recent ship sinking, an unprecedented event, appears to have given fresh energy to Duterte’s opposition. Longtime opposition Sen. Leila de Lima, imprisoned on charges of involvement in drug trafficking, accused Duterte of “treason” for not condemning China regarding the incident on Wednesday. Several Catholic bishops, who Duterte has encouraged Philippine citizens to “kill,” have also objected to Duterte’s silence.
“The government has a duty to protect its citizens and its territory. It should not allow itself to be bullied and let its people suffer,” Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said this week.
“Duterte is selective in dispensing justice,” Bishop Arturo Bastes of Sorsogon added. “This is a sign that his judgment cannot be relied upon on serious moral and social issues.”
Duterte has said little about the attack, urging patience. His lack of outrage contrasts significantly to many in his administration, including his spokesman Salvador Panelo, who initially described the sinking as “barbaric” and has implied that Manila would seek to involve the United States militarily in the incident if it can confirm that it was, indeed, an attack. The United States is bound to counterattack in the defense of the Philippines, and vice versa, by treaty.
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also condemned China, calling the Chinese ship’s retreat after the sinking “cowardly.”
Panelo has since changed his tune, questioning the version of events the Philippine sailors provided in Tuesday’s briefing.
“There are circumstances that give doubt to the [Philippine sailors’] version, so we need to investigate it. A formal inquiry is needed here,” Panelo said. “It’s not a question of belief. What we are saying: Both sides should stop speculating. That’s what the president is saying. That’s why he called on everyone to keep quiet … Let’s not jump to conclusions.”