Opinion: Fishing rights? What about sovereignty?


Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China this week is already bearing fruit. With promises of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment and even some non-specific promises about Filipino fishermen regaining access to disputed areas in the South China Sea (with some conditions which are yet to be publically announced).

Fishing is a major industry in the Philippines and the disputed grounds are very rich in sea life

While proponents of the unconventional leader are singing his praises about regaining the rights of subsistence fishermen to access the rich waters that they’ve fished for generations, there are a few things that seem to be being glossed over. The fact that the territory to which access is being regained is being illegally occupied by the hostile forces of a foreign nation being the elephant in the room.


“I guarantee to (China), if you enter here, it will be bloody, and we will not give it to them easily. It will be the bones of our soldiers, you can include mine.”

-Rodrigo Duterte, August 24th 2016

While his war on drugs and promises to quell the violence in the Southern Philippine Islands were two big things that he was elected on. He was also spitting out some pretty hard line rhetoric in the direction of the Chinese earlier in the year. He’s gone from this, in April of this year:


“I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest point in South China Sea that is tolerable to them and I will ride a jet ski‎. I will carry a flag and when I reach Spratlys, I will erect the Filipino flag. I will tell them (Chinese), Suntukan o barilan?”

– Rodrigo Duterte, April 24th 2016

To this in September:

“One of the things that I would demand if I go to the mainland China is: ‘Give us back our fishing rights.’ That’s one. Ma-negosyo ‘tong pobre kong mga kababayan. (So our fellow Filipinos can make a living),”

-Rodrigo Duterte, September 22nd, 2016

The difference between those two statements is huge. In April he is saying that he will defend the sovereignty of the nation at all costs and by September he’s ready to storm Peking with a wet bus ticket and ask nicely if they could, pretty please, move their big shiny boats so the Philippines could, maybe, have a few fish.

Perfecto Yasay Jr, Secretary of Foreign Affairs

Of course in the lead up to his state visit to the Middle Kingdom, things flipped again with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr announcing that fishing rights were actually completely off the agenda:

“We’re taking advantage of the opportunity of making sure that the other aspects of our relationship with our neighbor, China, will be pursued”

-Perfecto Yasay Jr (speaking about fishing rights), October 2016

When Duterte was asked about what he planned to discuss with regard to the disputed territories he said that he didn’t plan to raise them but that if they came up “we can set the broad lines, but there will be no hard impositions. There will be no asking of concessions,” he then explained that he did not want to raise issues that could damage goodwill with the Chinese. That instead “we will be asking for the help of China,” such as the Chinese making “soft loans” available to the Philippines.

Having also said in recent days that the Philippines is no beggar and does not require any aid from the United States it would seem to this writer that he is instead suggesting that he is prepared to auction off sovereignty in return for an increase in the national debt.

This is the very same sovereignty that he is so vehemently defending against the evil colonialists in Washington. His hard line anti-Chinese stance before the election has turned tail, done a huge pivot and become a hard line anti-US (arguably anti-West) stance and no one seems to have noticed. If they have, they don’t care.

Anyone even suggesting that the president does not have the best interests of the country at heart is immediately branded a Yellowtard. Duterte’s supporters are whipped into such a partisan frenzy that they refuse to accept that maybe, just maybe, Mr Duterte does not have all the answers.

They also appear not to have noticed that by not standing up to the Chinese, Mr Duterte is basically ceding the disputed territories to Beijing. If the Philippines does not take a stand to preserve its ownership of the islands in question, they will be gone forever.

Once again, proponents of the president say that the problems in the Scarborough Shoal were not of Duterte’s making and that he has been lumped with a big mess by previous administrations. A mess which he is only trying to clean up to the best of his ability.

This is of course true, to an extent. The problems in the South China Sea go back centuries. They are also far bigger than just the Philippines and China with one of the world’s most important and busiest merchant shipping routes traversing the body of water. The point is that Duterte is constitutionally bound to defend the sovereignty of the country, including the EEZ. This prompted Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio to say that a failure to actively defend the Scarborough (Pantag) Shoal could be grounds for the impeachment of the president.

“I would not want to go to that extent because if the president concedes now our sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal, yes, you can impeach him,” – Antonio Caprio, October 2016

Of course the likelihood of any impeachment effort going ahead is pretty slim, it would also arguably not be good for the country’s stability (which is already faltering). What does have me scratching my head though is why exactly the (extremely vocal) supporters of Mr Duterte seem not to care that he is giving away their country in exchange for very little.

Mr Duterte is an elected representative of the people, not a rock star.

Just because you support a politician it doesn’t mean that you have to support everything they do. Supporters of this particular president appear to respond to any criticism of his policies with personal offence and comments about how he’s better than the last guy.  That’s not how you have a debate. Supporting a democratically elected leader is not the same as supporting a football team, you don’t actually have to fly his flag everywhere you go.

I get it that a lot of his policies are good for the country, surely though anyone can see that giving away natural resources is not. Surely anyone can see that if a man who is ostensibly a powerful and righteous leader, a man of the people, has to go cap in hand to a foreign government to beg for his people to have the rights to fish in their own waters that something is going wrong?