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Recto-22: The Blurred Stance of Mr. Duterte and his Cohorts on the Common Good and Sovereign-Human Rights

On July 12, 2016 marks the third year when the International Law of Justice at The Hague favored the claims of the Philippines over the West Philippine Sea as opposed to the argument of China’s historical rights over the PH waters. The tribunal found that China had interfered with Philippines’ petroleum exploration, it has failed to prevent Chinese fishermen and militia from entering and exploiting Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, has prevented the navigation of Philippine vessels and fisherfolk within its own the territorial sea, and has ongoing construction of artificial islands with a military base.  Three years after the ruling, China remains unbent to the ruling and refused to acknowledge the award in favor of the Philippines. Today, the Chinese government together with its military fiercely and forcefully infiltrates the Philippine waters, not only contended with the Western part, but they also crossed its Eastern part. Because of the continuous disregard of China on The Hague ruling, two former Philippine officials, Conchita Carpio-Morales and Albert del Rosario (Ombudsman and Foreign Affairs Secretary, respectively) on March 15, 2019 filed a complaint against Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

June 12, 2019 (ironically, is the celebration of Philippine Independence), there was a confirmed report of a collision on the Recto Bank (which is within the 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the PH waters) a Chinese vessel against an anchored Philippine fishing vessel, where the latter sank together with the 22 Filipinos on board (the incident is now referred to as Recto-22). The Chinese vessel left, without aiding the Filipinos, it was a Vietnamese vessel that was in the area who saw and rescued the Filipinos.

To the dismay of many Filipinos, Mr. Duterte sided China’s narrative than defend his fellow Filipino fishermen. He seems unmoved and saw that siding with the Chinese government is the only way to keep the Philippines safe. Does Mr. Duterte have a point of having an agreement over the West Philippine Sea with Beijing or is this simply a wrong and undiplomatic judgment of his? How can we make sense of the intimidation (put it mildly) and injustice (frankly speaking) of the Chinese government not only on PH waters, but to the Filipinos?

China’s indifference (to put it mildly) is coming from a political paradigm that is opposed to a western mindset. China’s gradual rise has caught the attention of many, and there is a need to comprehend its very nature and roots. Though it has claimed to be a nation-state, China in reality poses a civilizational-state, where its identity lies not on territorial acquisition or annexing but on historical contingency covering two millennia, with a strong belief that their race is superior.[1] The instilling of the Confucian philosophy and the Tianxia theory “all under heaven,” has shaped an ideology beginning in Chinese schools and cementing this to the consciousness of Chinese making it the foundation of stability and peaceful “confederation.”

This paradigm and hegemony of China seems to be a blend of Leninist capitalism and neo-Confucian ideology that subtly infiltrates other nations through the “innocent” cultural exchanges between nations under the guise of Confucius Institutes[2] as well as the Belt and Road Infrastructure Initiative (BRII), that constructs an “all roads” leading to China sooner than we thought. The present China aims to create this new world order, a sort of autocracy and authoritarianism via “annexing” Hong Kong, Taiwan and the West Philippine Sea (and perhaps of the Philippines in the near future). It’s soft power, a neo-colonialism, has been in place in the Philippines for centuries now, beginning with its trade and commerce. Now we have Chinese schools, Chinatowns, Chinese business tycoons, which shows its obvious influence not only in the economy but also in our politics and culture. Unsatisfied with the soft power, China has turned aggressive by grabbing territorial seas, both the west and the east (Benham Rise) of the Philippines, and the illegal entry of Chinese laborers. The problem lies before us is the complacency of the Philippine leadership headed by Mr. Duterte and his administrative cohorts, who seems to allow such infiltration and blatant harassment of China. Mr. Duterte has been overt in being bias to his “friend” neighbor, showing as sort of soft sovereignty or worse seems to be turning the Philippines into a subnational of China, where he openly said, “why not let China conquer us.” This sounds a sell-out of Mr. Duterte, which is opposed to the firm and determined action of many Hong Kong residents on their protest that resulted in the withdrawal of the extradition bill.[3] It seems that Beijing was shaken by the powerful protest of most Hong Kongers, but on similar “protest” filed by Morales and del Rosario was taken with arrogance and indignation by Beijing when the two were held in the Hong Kong immigration and denied entry thereof. As for the Recto-22 incident, China has violated multiple times The Hague ruling as well as maritime laws. First, it continually failed to prevent Chinese vessels and militia from illegal entry in the PH waters. Second, there is no legal action against the perpetrators and third, it never offered any compensation for the damages it caused to the Philippine vessel and its fishermen.[4] More so, because this happened within the EEZ, China must be held responsible and accountable, but up to this writing, China remains defiant of the matter.

The present circumstance reverberates the call of Pope John XXIII, in his encyclical, Pacem in Terris (PT). Though its main thought was the Cold War and racism, the encyclical resonates a timeless issue on human rights and inter-state relations. The PT emphasizes that a regime must not govern by means of threat or intimidation for this is offensive to the dignity of peoples. Further, the state must be a moral force that guarantees and safeguards the dignity, rights and freedom of its citizens. (No. 48-50) Justice must be upheld, which is not merely a matter of interpreting the law, whether the state upholds dignity and protects the rights of every person, which is the fundamental reference point of any law to guarantee justice and equity. The essential precepts of the encyclical seem at opposite poles with the stance of Mr. Duterte, his cohorts and China in the case of Recto-22. In addition, Morales, del Rosario, and Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Carpio[5] are not merely concerned with economic effects of “surrendering” to China, but they are extremely concerned on the issue of human rights violation, which Beijing and Mr. Duterte seems to be known for their upfront disregard.

More appalling is the admittance of Mr. Duterte of a secret personal verbal agreement with Xi Jingpin, giving the latter a blanket permission to fish and exploit the PH seas. Further, Mr. Duterte has set aside the favourable ruling of the Hague in exchange of economic aid and investments from China, while the Asian giant refused to acknowledge the court decision, resulting to their compounded violation of the rights of Filipino fisherfolk and maritime integrity. Such action is tantamount to undermining the ruling of The Hague, as well as the sovereign rights of the Filipinos on its own territory. The President’s action on the regard of a blanket permission given to China is unconstitutional, reiterated by Justice Carpio.

The recent trade war between US-China headlines mainly an economic issue must not place at the sidelines the essential matter at stake in international relations. The developed and developing economies need to remember the fundamental issue that must also take place on their negotiating table – the concern on human dignity, rights and freedom, which for years China has overtly disregarded. As presented above, Beijing’s indifference as well as arrogance towards the Philippines and her citizens will always be taken unconstitutional and unjust. On this matter, Mr. Duterte and his cohorts must assert the Philippines’ maritime rights and defend the rights of his fellow citizens by taking action which otherwise when kept in silence may be interpreted as acquiescence. Further, the existing leaders of the Philippines must take a stance and refrain from enabling China with its intimidation.

It is apt to reiterate these questions, not only on the matter of China, but those countries that blatantly show the world how they regard people: How are we to balance the common good of nations while guaranteeing the protection of human dignity, rights and freedom? Is it still humane and just to undertake international trade relations with countries that outrightly disregards and disrespects human dignity, rights and freedom?

[1] Tracing its race 220 BCE during the Han Empire. Further, its main ideology lies in the name “China,” where in Classical Chinese is Zhongguo, which poetically means “Middle Kingdom.” Historically, it’s neighbors look at China for protection, militarily and economically, thus its system then was tributary, a China-centered world, so to speak. From here, we can see partially how China’s system works, with a firm belief that it will be the world’s center.

[2] Such institute is funded by the Chinese government with its own set rules. There are Confucius Institutes in Africa, as well as in the Unites State, namely in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Indiana University, where the two universities making decisive actions regarding the subtle controlled influence of the Confucius Institutes.

[3] By contrast, on June 9, 2019, Hong Kong residents who showed their utter disagreement with the move of Chief Executive, Carrie Lam on the extradition bill. The Hong Kongers were determined to voice their sentiments. A month of protest paved the way for Lam to categorically confirm that the “bill is dead” last July 8, 2019. The protest shows the distrust of Hong Kong with the Beijing’s government. There have been reports of Chinese critics who left mainland because of their experience of aggressive intimidation and surviellance by the government on them and to their families.

[4] Paterno Esmaquel, “Recto Bank incident ‘clear violation of Int’l law’ – PH lead counsel July 3, 2019.

[5] Associate Justice Antonio Carpio openly critiques the administration and conscientize the Filipino citizens on our claims and sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. He is also an expert on the law of the seas.