In April 2018, President Duterte declared, “I just simply love Xi Jinping.” President Duterte made this declaration in a press conference in Davao City just before he left for China to attend the Boao Forum for Asia. Unfortunately for President Duterte, and more so for the Filipino people, this public expression of love has been unrequited.
President Xi has described himself as the architect of China’s relentless expansion into the South China Sea. Despite President Duterte’s professed love for him, President Xi has sent hundreds of his maritime militia vessels to swarm around the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island, the largest island occupied by the Philippines in the Spratlys. These Chinese maritime militia vessels just loiter or park around the 12-nautical mile territorial sea of Pag-asa, in clear violation of Philippine sovereignty. Foreign vessels can sail in the territorial sea of another state only in the exercise of innocent passage, which must be straight and continuous without loitering or stopping.
In 2017, in the first year of the Duterte administration, China seized from the Philippines the tiny sandbar named Sandy Cay which permanently emerged from the territorial sea of Pag-asa in early 2017. Sandy Cay is situated some two nautical miles from Pag-asa. As a high-high tide feature, Sandy Cay is a land territory that generates its own territorial sea, carving out a third of Pag-asa’s territorial sea as its own. Part of the reason China’s maritime militia vessels swarm around Pag-asa is to prevent the Philippines from retaking Sandy Cay. With China’s seizure of Sandy Cay, the Philippines lost not only a land territory but also a third of Pag-asa’s territorial sea, a loss of maritime area more than three times larger than the land area of Quezon City.
Now, China is on the verge of seizing another maritime area over which the Philippines has sovereign rights. Since March 7, 2021, China has parked 220 maritime militia vessels in Julian Felipe Reef, about 175 nautical miles from Palawan, well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. As a fully submerged atoll outside the territorial sea of any island, Julian Felipe Reef is clearly part of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines in accordance with the arbitral ruling in the South China Sea Arbitration.
China is resorting to the same playbook it used when it seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995. At that time, China claimed it was only constructing fishermen’s shelters on Mischief Reef. Today, Mischief Reef is China’s largest air and naval base in the Spratlys, and Chinese security analysts call Mischief Reef China’s Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea. China claims that its maritime militia vessels now parked in Julian Felipe Reef are merely seeking shelter from a storm. There is, however, no storm right now anywhere near Julian Felipe Reef. If there is really a storm, the Chinese vessels can always seek shelter in the far more secure Mischief Reef, which is just 50 nautical miles away from Julian Felipe Reef. Clearly, China has designs to seize and occupy Julian Felipe Reef.
President Duterte has been left in the lurch by his beloved President Xi. Even the $24 billion in loans and investments that President Xi promised him have failed to materialize. The only thing that President Duterte can hope for is President Xi’s protection from being ousted as Philippine president. On May 14, 2018, President Duterte proudly narrated what President Xi told him: “We will not allow you to be taken out from your office.” This could be the reason why President Duterte is not bothered by China’s creeping invasion in the Spratlys. After all, the Chinese air and naval forces in the Spratlys will implement President Xi’s promise to protect President Duterte from being ousted from office. Only vassals seek that kind of protection, and President Duterte is proud to be one.
Where does that leave the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which is specifically tasked by the Constitution to defend Philippine territory and maritime zones? How can the AFP perform its constitutional mandate when its own Commander in Chief is seeking personal protection from the Commander in Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, the same army that is seizing Philippine territory and maritime zones in the West Philippine Sea?