Large red banners reading “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China” mysteriously appeared on bridges throughout the nation’s capital Manila on Thursday, the second anniversary of an international legal ruling that declared China’s presence in Philippine territory in the South China Sea was illegal.
No group or individual has taken responsibility for decorating the city with the large signs, which also carried Chinese script. The signs appear to be a reference to President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly joking that the Communist Party in Beijing sought to colonize the Philippines and turn it into a province. According to Reuters, at least five signs appeared throughout the capital.
Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque replied to the signs with outrage, interpreting them as coming from those who believe that Duterte has not done enough to compel China to withdraw from what the nation calls the West Philippine Sea. Roque told reporters that the sign’s declaration was “absurd and I’m sure it’s the enemies of the government behind it,” according to Asia One. The signs, he continued, “are obviously propagating a lie that we have given up on our national territory … it’s the farthest from the truth.”
“We continue to assert our sovereignty and sovereign rights but we have decided to move on issues which are non-controversial because we know the final resolution, particularly on the issue of sovereignty on the disputed islands, will take many years to resolve since this was not a subject of the arbitral ruling that we won two years ago,” Roque declared.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) also told the public they were actively searching for the culprits, who could face legal repercussions for their political speech. “There are city ordinances … you cannot just post your sentiments anywhere,” PNP spokesperson Sr. Supt. Benigno Durana Jr. said.
China has built artificial islands, military facilities, and complex surveillance systems in the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea, disputed by both the Philippines and Vietnam. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague found in the case of Philippines v. China on July 12, 2016, that China’s claims to the South China Sea – which also overlap with the sovereign territory of Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan – were inconsistent with international law and China must immediately cease militarizing these countries’ territories.
In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the ruling “null and void,” stating it “has no binding force,” and has completely disregarded it, continuing to expand its colonization of the region.
The case was filed by Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who took a much harder anti-China stance than Duterte. Duterte began his tenure in 2016 promising a geopolitical pivot away from the United States and towards China. Since then, he has repeatedly joked that Chinese officials “really want to make the Philippines a province of China.” In February, Duterte said at a meeting of the Chinese Business Club, “If you want, just make us a province, like Fujian: Province of Philippines, Republic of China.” At that same meeting, Duterte quipped, “If China were a woman, I’d woo her.”
In more serious moments, Duterte has expressed a lack of willingness to enforce the Hague ruling because he fears that the Philippines military is not sufficiently powerful enough to reasonably challenge China’s People’s Liberation Army.
His attitude towards the ruling is largely not shared by the majority of his country and represents perhaps his most unpopular opinion. A poll released Thursday, the anniversary of the ruling, found that 73 percent of Philippine nationals want Duterte to enforce the Hague ruling and expel China from Philippine territory. Only 7 percent of respondents expressed opposition to the idea of defending national sovereignty.