It would seem that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is finally seeing the light, at least where the West Philippine Sea is concerned.
After it was learned that hundreds of Chinese fishing ships had been intruding into Philippine waters, specifically the area surrounding Pag-asa island, Mr. Duterte finally spoke out against China. He warned Beijing to “lay off” the island.
Mr. Duterte went so far as to say that if China harmed Filipino soldiers stationed at the island, he “will respond in kind.”
Strong words, aren’t they?
Certainly, but also long overdue. Mr. Duterte in effect recognized the arbitral ruling negating China’s sweeping claim of ownership over what it calls the South China Sea by citing dubious historical records.
He may refuse to state his predecessor by name, but everyone knows that it was former President Benigno Aquino III whose administration challenged China in court, and won.
Like the Spratlys, Pag-asa is located well within Philippine territorial waters, and is recognized by most of the world as such.
However, it was because Mr. Duterte had become so enamored with China that he practically left the door open for what qualifies as an invasion. By granting onerous loans to the Philippines worth hundreds of millions of dollars, China now treats the Philippines as their province and its chief executive as their puppet.
Until that bold warning against China, Mr. Duterte had stated again and again that it would be foolhardy to challenge the military and economic superpower. His logic was that since the Philippines was certain to lose a war against China, our homeland might as well welcome the invasion.
What he failed to see was that his predecessor had crafted the blueprint of how to handle China by letting an international court decide who was right and who was wrong.
China may have opted to disregard the ruling, but the rest of the world is aware that the Philippines had proven its case by winning. And while this was happening during the Aquino era, the Philippines and China still managed to maintain generally peaceful, mostly friendly, relations.
Now might be a good time to swallow more of his pride by mending the Philippines’ somewhat strained ties with the US caused by Mr. Duterte’s reckless insults against former President Barack Obama. He appears to be more comfortable with President Donald Trump, so this is as good a time as any to make sure that the Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and the Philippines is as strong as ever.
The Philippines needs to be assured that in the event that China takes any kind of military action against the country, its traditional ally the US can be counted on to live up to the treaty.
Sadly, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had to speak his mind and say that now is not the right time to raise the sea disputes with China.
To this we paraphrase the war cry of Filipino activists from decades past.
If not now, when? If not us, who?