The hollow ring of Duterte's "independence"

by  Jeraldine Pascual

PRESIDENT RODRIGO Duterte’s pivot to China seems to be going well, if judged by the signed agreements and the impressive gains and values these hold. China’s economic commitments boosts the government’s ambitious Build, Build, Build infrastructure program and more. Duterte’s two visits to China in 2019 bagged more business deals and loan agreements, adding to the gains of his three previous visits since assuming office. Government has secured the flow of billions of dollars from the second biggest economy in the world. 

So far, however, all these gains are mainly on paper. Most of the contracts with China since 2016 have hardly materialized as expected. Observers have also flagged onerous provisions in some of these deals, which include the possible surrender of patrimonial assets. 

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping discuss matters during the bilateral meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 29, 2019. | Photo from PCOO, Photo by Robinson Ninal

Casting doubts on China’s intentions can only be expected, as these are viewed in the context of the Sino-Philippine maritime dispute. Duterte’s complacency about China’s occupation of parts of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) is not news anymore, although surveys show high levels of disapproval of the president’s policy of indifference. With Manila’s consistent refusal to hold Beijing to account, the encroachment of Chinese vessels on Philippine waters has not abated and even increased.

Indeed, media has highlighted government’s claims about the benefits that flow from Duterte’s conciliatory relationship with China. But coverage has not done as much to probe the findings of Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations reflecting a high level of public disapproval of China and a widespread distrust of its motives.

The media have done better in making the public aware of alarming developments in PH territorial waters in 2019.  Aided by the Philippine military, maritime experts and locals of coastal areas, journalists flagged alarming aggression by Chinese vessels: poaching of giant clams, harassment of Filipino boats by the Chinese Coast Guard in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, the surreptitious entry of Chinese warships in southern parts of the Philippines, and the proliferation of Chinese maritime militia and fishing boats.

In reporting these, several news organizations referred to the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision that China’s aggressive, expansionist moves violated the Philippines’s sovereign rights to its exclusive economic zone. But others did not. 

Progressive groups gather at the Chinese Consulate in Makati City on Independence day, June 12, protesting against China’s encroachment on Philippine waters. | Photo by Lito Ocampo.

The Recto Bank incident

It took one incident in 2019 to make more visible the Filipinos’ sense of discomfort over, if not strong disapproval of, the government’s conduct of PH relations with China. 

The ramming of a Filipino fishing boat Gem-Vir 1 on Recto Bank lit up a furor of news coverage, which lasted for over a month, beyond the usual period given to extraordinary news events. The press picked initial information from the press statement of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, released on June 12, Independence Day, describing what happened in the late hours of June 9. 

Media gave airtime and space to inform the public about every detail of the fishermen’s plight, documenting stalwart statements that they were rammed and abandoned by a Chinese vessel. The offending boat, later established to be a Chinese steel-hulled ship, left 22 Filipino fishermen to drown in a “hit-and-run” episode at sea. They were only saved after two of the crew paddled for two hours to ask for help from the nearest vessel: a Vietnamese fishing boat. The men lost PHP1 million worth of catch and salvaged what they could of what was left of the Gem-Vir.

Members of the Cabinet responded through interviews and public statements, fueling more public interaction on social media. Journalists documented the egregious attempts of government officials to downplay the incident from the beginning, noting Beijing’s early statement which pinned the blame on the Filipino fishermen.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr., Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo and Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol, among the first to react to the news, seemed more concerned about quelling public hostility against the Chinese. They were more preoccupied with the use of the most appropriate term to describe the incident, speculating about the intentionality of the ramming as well as dismissing the banality of the episode. Duterte himself spoke on the issue only after a week, echoing Beijing’s official position that what happened was a “little maritime incident.” The public heard him say again how he could not risk going to war with China, adding that he had struck a fishing agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Broadcast reports recorded Piñol’s visit to the fishermen in their hometown. Although media were not allowed into the room where he talked with the survivors, they showed how he came prepared with a full force of heavily-armed policemen who refused to be interviewed. TV journalists also noted how the fishermen noticeably softened their otherwise firm stand when the meeting concluded, forced to do the obligatory fist-bump pose with Piñol 

F/B Gem-Ver fishermen receive aid following the loss of their livelihood in the sinking of the fishing vessel in June 2019. | Photo from 

The issue simmered down after the fishermen received assistance from Piñol’s office, with only a handful of reports keeping tabs as the Gem-Vir survivors started over with their livelihood. Still, the Philippine Coast Guard and the Maritime Industry Authority classified the incident as a “very serious marine casualty,” effectively contradicting Beijing and Duterte’s shared view.

Unfortunately, the media, print in particular, indulged public officials who gave disjointed statements, which all failed to tell the public what government would do to ensure justice for the men of Gem-Vir. At some point, critics or anyone expressing a view different from Duterte were sidelined.

Thus media yielded to the official narrative, lacking the temerity to question the government spin. Reports failed to stress the crucial point that the Chinese vessel abandoned the fishermen to their fate in the waters; and that not only Duterte but his officials seemed more eager to appease the Chinese.

As usual, there were standout exceptions. 

TV reports and some online articles, particularly from Rappler, were notably more critical in their stories. These were especially compelling in the recount of the survivors’ ordeal, airing voices that were clearly being drowned out by the administration.

Rappler also stood out for its in-depth report on Duterte’s apparent lawyering for China, pointing out that the president and his alter egos doubted their own countrymen and interrogated them in a manner that put them on the defensive. Similarly, the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s editorials provided sharper analysis of the discourse that the Duterte administration set, raising the important questions that its print news failed to reflect.

All talk 

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping during a bilateral meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 29, 2019. | Photo from PCOO website, Photo by Rey Baniquet

There was nothing in 2019 reports to prove that the government was following up on Duterte’s promise to raise the issue of the arbitral ruling with Beijing, not even after the working visit to China in August. The media seemed content with Panelo’s word that Duterte discussed the ruling with President Xi, behind closed doors. 

Similarly, there was silence on the part of the government, and thus no news was reported about the failure of Beijing to exercise self-restraint in their activities in Philippine waters, as journalists covering the WPS continued to reveal aggressive moves on the part of Chinese vessels.

The government narrative dominated news coverage; media seemed unable to challenge the official take on China. The press did not resist, question or challenge the government position with other views. News accounts recorded what the president had to say about China’s friendship and benevolence, and left the exposure of continuing aggression against Filipinos to a few daring journalists. 

Reporters may feel that journalistic objectivity prevents a more analytical thrust to help citizens make their own judgments. But the facts are clear, whether in the matter of economic benefits, or in the heightened perils in our seas.


“I am not going down in history as a clam defender, okay? It’s a complaint; we’re looking into it; but these are just f*****g food; no one goes to war for clams (maybe Oysters of Locquemariaquer) but they just happen to be OUR food. They should pay for them like in (the) fish market.”


Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on his social media account tweeted in  April 2019
reacting to reports that Chinese fishermen were harvesting giant clams in and around the Scarborough Shoal