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Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte vows for first time to ‘defend our interest’ in South China Sea

Philippine leader’s state-of-the-nation address was delayed due to battle for House leadership, which saw return to spotlight of former president Gloria Arroyo

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 6:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 11:21pm

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed for the first time in a major policy speech that he would “defend our interest in the West Philippine Sea”.

In an hour-long state-of-the-nation address before congress on Monday, Duterte said: “Our improved relationship with China does not mean we will waver to defend our interest in the West Philippine Sea,” referring to the group of islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea.

He did not go into details. However, Duterte made it clear that China and the Philippines were addressing the issue through diplomacy.

He said both countries were also closely sharing intelligence on the issue of illegal drugs, which has led to the discovery of clandestine ice laboratories operated by “the Wu syndicate”.

Duterte’s mention of the maritime conflict came days after private pollster Pulse Asia released survey results showing that 73 per cent of Filipinos wanted the Duterte government to assert the decision of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

The same survey showed Filipinos trusted the United States (74 per cent), Japan (45 per cent), Australia (32 per cent) and China (17 per cent) in that order.

Diplomats from those countries were present in Congress to hear Duterte speak. But nowhere in the address did the president mention the US, Japan or Australia. He did talk about Asean briefly.

In last year’s speech, Duterte gave the US a public bashing by describing how the Americans killed Filipinos during the Filipino-American war at the turn of the 20th century.

Duterte’s speech was delayed for over an hour by a tussle over the House speaker post between incumbent Jose Alvarez and former president turned Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Arroyo had grabbed the speaker post at lunchtime from Alvarez, with the reported blessing of Duterte’s daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte. A clutch of congressmen swore her into office, but the ceremony was cut short after the sound system was turned off.

The mace – a symbol of the House that has to be set on a pedestal to denote that sessions are going on – also went missing.

President Duterte arrived on time for his 4pm speech but had to resolve the impasse between Alvarez and Arroyo, two of his closest political allies.

About three hours later, the House formally elected Arroyo as speaker.

Political commentator Earl Parreno said Arroyo had the experience and influence to shepherd through Duterte’s planned shift to a federal system, and might have her eye on the presidency for when his term ends.

“She is perfect for the job,” Parreno said. “This signals a big political comeback. She may have an ambition to replace Duterte under a new constitution in 2022. The only question is, is she acceptable?”

Sources told various television stations and newspapers that Sara Duterte had personally asked some congressmen to unseat Alvarez.

In February she had accused Alvarez of being a member of the political opposition and told Rappler news website “the Philippines will be a better country” and her father “a stronger president” if not for Alvarez. She also called him a “fat sleaze” and “insecure slob”.

That was after Alvarez reportedly bragged to a crowd that he could impeach Duterte if he wanted to. Alvarez has denied the claim.

Nearly an hour later, Duterte finally entered the hall with Alvarez by his side, but didn’t appear his usual smiling self. During his speech, he lacked energy and it was one of the rare times he read a prepared speech and did not crack jokes or use four-letter words.

The passage of a Muslim Autonomy Law became a casualty of the in-House tiff. The Senate or Upper House had approved the final version in the morning, but in the Lower House, Arroyo’s power grab delayed approval.

Signing the Bangsamoro Organic Law mid-speech was supposed to be the highlight of Duterte’s address. Instead, he just said later: “Give me 48 hours to sign it and ratify the law.”

Edna Co, a University of the Philippines professor of public administration, told ABS-CBN news: “My sense is that after today there can be a new speaker of the House taking over the session.”

Co said the power play denied Duterte the chance to dramatically sign the Muslim autonomy law, which she described as “the laurel of the Duterte administration”.

To Xavier University law professor Antonio La Vina, the political damage was far greater. He expressed a belief that Duterte’s desire to change the constitution “is the casualty of this … coup d’etat [against Alvarez]”.

“How can I trust these people [with charter change] if they cannot even do this simple thing well?” La Vina explained, referring to the controversial plan to change the unitary system of government into a federal system.

During his speech, Duterte briefly mentioned his proposed federal set-up but did not explain why it was needed or how it would affect ordinary Filipinos. He denied, though, that it was designed to allow him to stay in office longer.

“I have no illusions of occupying this office one day longer than what the constitution will permit or what the constitution might be,” he said.

He began his speech by maintaining that he will continue with his campaign against illegal drugs, saying it will be “relentless and chilling” and taking a swipe at critics of his crackdown.

“Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,” Duterte said.

He also promised to continue fighting state corruption and red tape and warned rice cartel profiteers to “stop messing with me”, as well as hinting at “radical” reforms in the mining sector.

A visibly tired Duterte ended his speech by quoting from former US president Abraham Lincoln: “I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Additional reporting by Reuters