Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte responded to lawmakers and assorted pundits who raised the possibility of him facing impeachment for allowing the Chinese Communist Party to fish in Philippine waters on Thursday by threatening to arrest them.
Duterte previously suggested he did not have the power to stop Chinese ships from fishing in the exclusive maritime territory of the Philippines. While international law does allow Duterte to grant those permissions to the Chinese, the Philippine constitution requires the president and government to block all foreigners from exploiting the island nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The controversy over China’s presence in the West Philippine Sea, a subsection of the greater South China Sea, followed a violent incident near Recto Bank of the Spratly Islands in which a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Philippine vessel, leaving the crew in the water to die. The 22 members of the ship’s crew survived thanks to the arrival of a Vietnamese ship hours later, whose crew rescued them.
The incident prompted large protests in Manila, where Filipinos gathered to burn Chinese flags and demand that Duterte’s government act to remove Chinese vessels from the area.
The waters outside of Recto Bank are Philippine sovereign territory. Many Philippine politicians and opponents of closer ties between China and the Philippines questioned what the Chinese vessel was doing there in the first place that would have allowed them to get close enough to the Filipino ship to sink it. Duterte’s contribution to that debate was to reject the idea of not allowing China into Philippine waters, a direct rejection of Article 12 of the constitution.
“You scare me with impeachment, son of a bitch just try doing it,” Duterte said to politicians discussing impeachment. “Just try me, try me. If you are a man and you are brave and have balls, do it, son of a bitch.”
“Impeach me? I will arrest all of them. I dare you to do it,” Duterte said. “I tell these stupid people, I said I deal with reality.”
Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo defended Duterte on Friday, stating that the president was simply stating he was not afraid of an impeachment fight and that the process is a “numbers game” in Congress. Panelo also called Duterte’s defense of China fishing in the country’s waters ”
precisely in obedience to the command by the Constitution to him to serve and to protect the people.”
Article 12 of the Philippine constitution reads, “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”
In remarks this week, Duterte argued that China’s claims in the South China Sea make it difficult for the Philippine Coast Guard to keep Chinese fishermen out. China claims territory in the sea that legally belongs to the sovereign governments of Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia, in addition to the Philippines. But the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled that China’s claims were all invalid in 2016 and ordered China to stop colonizing the region.
“We cannot drive them away because they have insisted it’s theirs,” Duterte nonetheless argued.
Senator Leila de Lima, one of Duterte’s most prominent political enemies who is currently in prison for alleged ties to drug trafficking, called Duterte a “dictator” for threatening to imprison his political enemies. “We should not tolerate this issue of Duterte violating the Constitution,” de Lima added.
Following the ship’s sinking in early June, Duterte largely stayed quiet about the issue in public, even as his spokesman, Panelo, called the sinking “barbaric” and condemned China directly for the assault. Duterte later outraged the country by calling the sinking a “little maritime accident.” Last week, however, Duterte accepted China’s help in a “joint investigation” on the matter, which many in the Philippines criticized, arguing that China would never find itself guilty.
“We are by no means relinquishing any inch of our sovereign rights, nor compromising the rights of our 22 fishermen. We are demanding justice for our countrymen, and we are using all legal means toward that end,” Panelo said at the time.