SONA 2019 in brief: Things Duterte said about China, South China Sea

July 22, 2019 - 10:29 PM
Duterte delivers 4th SONA
President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during his fourth State of the Nation Address at the Philippine Congress in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines July 22, 2019. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

There were a dozen things President Rodrigo Duterte said in his fourth State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 22.

A highlight of his speech was how he defended his policy toward China and the South China Sea despite accusations that he has been trading the country’s sovereignty in appeasement of China.

Duterte said he had a meeting with Xi Jinping where the Chinese leader warned that taking action in the West Philippine Sea could “mean trouble.”

“If the trouble comes out from the mouth of a president of a republic, anong magawa ko? So what did I answer? ‘Well then maybe, sir, we can talk about this at some other time.’ But definitely, before I go, we must talk about the West Philippine Sea. We cannot you know, have our cake and eat it too.”

He also claimed that there is nothing the Philippines’ uniformed personnel can do to once in confrontation with a superior Chinese military.

“I cannot go there even to bring the Coast Guard to drive them away. China also claims the property and he is in possession. ‘Yan ang problema. Sila ‘yung in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner.”

On the ramming on Reed Bank and traditioning fishing

Going off-script, Duterte also attempted to explain why he earlier dismissed the ramming of a Filipino fishing boat by Chinese vessel on Reed Bank in June as just another sea incident.

“Eh ‘yung disgrasya, ‘yung pagsabi ‘a mere incident — legal, marine incident,’ ‘yan ang ginagamit sa batas ‘yan, ‘a marine incident happened.’ Hindi naman sinasabi na ‘marine accident.’

“It was just nabanggan, wala naman. So they wanted to talk, tapos ayaw dito. And so, “So sige, we will investigate and you investigate, and when you are ready, we should meet and compare notes, and let us determine who pays for what damage.”

SONA day protest
A fisherman and activist unfurls a Philippine flag in front of an effigy of President Rodrigo Duterte during a protest against Duterte’s annual State of the Nation Address in Manila, Philippines, July 22, 2019. (Reuters/Peter Blaza)

He also recognized “traditional fishing rights” in the South China Sea, allowing China to operate in the area.

“I go there, I said, “The fisheries who were…” And besides, I was invoking ‘yung traditional fishing rights. It is in that arbitral ruling. Ayaw lang ninyong gustong tignan.”

“It is mentioned there that even before countries were in existence, people around an ocean or a lake had already been fishing there for generations.”

The rights China is claiming to have, however, are within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone where it is not entitled to fish. Here Duterte makes an error in not distinguishing between traditional fishing grounds and the EEZ.

He also claimed that the Chinese “have been there fishing since time immemorial,” which can be understood as an articulation of China’s position of historical rights, which the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal in 2016 invalidated.

Responding to the SONA, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio stressed that traditional fishing “applies only in the territorial sea and archipelagic waters.”

“There is no traditional fishing in the EEZ. This is very clear in the arbitral award of 12 July 2016. Reed Bank is part of Philippine EEZ. There can be no traditional fishing in Reed Bank,” Carpio said.

Carpio has been outspoken about the Philippines’ historical and legal entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.

Duterte, meanwhile, said he would most probably raise the arbitral award with China in his final year in office.

“Let me assure you, national honor and territorial integrity are at the foremost of my mind… But we have to temper it with the times and realities we face today.”

— Camille Diola with a report from AFP