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Timeline: Duterte’s Stand on the West Philippine Sea Over the Years

How has Duterte's stand on the issue changed over the years? We investigate!

“It is impossible for peace to exist without dialogue… When there is a problem, talk. This makes peace.”

This is a quote from Pope Francis himself where he says that peace will only be attained if we communicate with each other. Communicating, compromising, and understanding each other are all it takes to harness peace among individuals, groups, and even nations.

And it seems like the lack of communication has been the problem between the Philippines and China with regards to the two nations’ claims to the West Philippine Sea (or South China Sea to others). Since 2011, the dispute between the two countries has come to the awareness of many, as the Chinese government has been claiming the entire body of water located south of its land—including the area that’s part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

In 2012, the Philippines officially announced that it will be using the term “West Philippine Sea” to refer to the body of water. Four years after, in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled that the Philippines had sovereignty over parts of the West Philippine Sea and China had “no historical rights” to claim the entire body of water as theirs. (Read: Retired Justice Antonio Carpio’s West PH Sea Lecture Now Available Online)

Filipino youth activists brave the waves as they hoist a Philippine flag on the shores of Zambales facing the West Philippine Sea on June 12, 2017, Independence Day. (Photo from Jun Dumaguing / ABS-CBN News)

However, in the same year that the PCA announced its ruling, then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte said that if the case went on too long, it would be of best interest to “make deals” with China. He also said that the Philippines should not insist on the ruling.

Fast forward to four years after he was elected as President, Duterte seemingly had a change of heart. On Tuesday, September 22, he declared in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) that the Philippines will be upholding its sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea. “The award is now part of international law… We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” Duterte said. (LIST: The Government Officials Who Resigned From Their Posts This Year)

So, since when did the president have a different opinion about the issue of the West Philippine Sea? We look into the timeline of his statements over the years!

February 2016: ‘We cannot defeat China’

  • Then-presidential candidate and Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said that if ever he wins the elections, he would be willing to talk to the Chinese government regarding sharing the resources that can be found in the West Philippine Sea.
  • “We cannot defeat you (China). We will be pulverized if we go to war. So I will just tell them, ‘If you want to talk, let’s talk. Or you might just want to open this as a mutual corridor and I will be willing to talk to you if there is oil and gas. Let us do it joint exploration,” Duterte said at an election forum.

October 2016: ‘We must not insist ownership of West Philippine Sea’

  • President Duterte flies to China to “improve economic and diplomatic ties” with the country. He was quoted to have questioned the point of claiming the West Philippine Sea if it could result to a third world war. “What might be the point of insisting on the ownership of the waters? It does not bring prosperity,” Duterte added.
  • Retired Justice Antonio Carpio warned the president that it could be grounds for impeachment if he concedes to China.

December 2016: ‘I will not impose on China’

  • In a speech after he returned from a trip to Cambodia and Singapore, Duterte said that he will “not impose anything on China.” He said that this is because “the politics here in Southeast Asia is changing. Like us now, I will separate or I will demand that you [U.S. forces] go out of my country.”

July 2017: ‘Oil and gas exploration in the seas will be a joint venture’

  • President Duterte says that talks of joint exploration for oil and gas in the West Philippine Sea are already in place.
  • “When they start to excavate the gas and oil, I tell you it’s going to be just like a joint venture,” he said at a post-SONA press conference.

May 2018: ‘We will end up losing a war’

  • Due to the apparent militarization of the West Philippine Sea, Duterte had a “soft stance” on the territorial dispute. “Because in my simple calculation, with every common sense that is available to me, I would have taken a stronger, probable a more violent way of doing it. I said, in my own estimation, it would probably be a great loss to the nation and probably end up losing a war,” he said.

June 2019: Duterte on Gem-Ver incident: ‘Well, I’m sorry. That’s how it is.’

  • On June 9, 2019, Filipino fishing boat “Gem-Ver 1” sank in the West Philippine Sea after a Chinese vessel rammed into it. As the crew nearly drowned, the Chinese fishermen left them in the waters.
  • As the incident enraged various humanitarian groups around the world, Filipinos called on Duterte to take action. Duterte, however, has said that the incident was a “small matter” that should not lead to war.
  • “Well, I’m sorry. That’s how it is,” Duterte told the press on June 24, 2019. “Sorry kung ganun ang feeling nila, but alam naman nila na that area is claimed by both. Para sa kanila, sa China, it happened within their jurisdiction, sa atin within our jurisdiction.”
  • Two months after the incident, the Philippine government announced its plans to seal a 60-40 joint oil exploration deal with the Chinese government. Joint entrepreneurial and steering committees were going to be created for the said initiative.

September 2020: ‘We will uphold the PCA ruling’

  • During the UNGA, Duterte expressed the Philippines’ sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea. He also said that the Philippine government is committed to upholding the PCA ruling.
  • “The award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon,” he said in a pre-recorded speech.

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