File photo shows Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The STAR/Kriszjohn Rosales
Commentary: Duterte’s deafening silence on Chinese harassment
Edwin Santiago ( - June 15, 2019 - 12:24pm

The denial of entry of former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales into Hong Kong almost a month ago seems to be a legitimate exercise of China’s sovereignty to impose immigration laws as it deems fit. Even so, political observers were quick to point out that this was most likely a retaliation on Morales by China. Was it intended to silence the Philippines whose government has already been eerily quiet about China’s shenanigans?

Statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke said that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This seems to be what Morales and former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Ambassador Albert del Rosario had in mind when they sued President Xi Jinping in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, accusing China of “atrocious actions of Chinese officials in the South China Sea and within Philippine territory.”

Perhaps they saw this is as their moral obligation, considering that the Philippine government has been tiptoeing around China, always choosing to be on the vague side of things. 

When President Rodrigo Duterte was campaigning for the presidency, he vowed to jet-ski to Scarborough Shoal and plant the Philippine flag in the South China Sea. After he won, he claimed that this promise was merely a joke. 

When the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration came out, the government called on everybody to “exercise restraint.” Duterte later downplayed the ruling, saying that he would rather deal with China on a bilateral level—something that China has been insisting on because of its obvious advantage in that set-up. 

At one point, Duterte—acting like the spokesman of the Chinese government—said that Xi Jinping—in a not-so-veiled threat—has warned the Philippines that it would go to war if Manila insisted on enforcing the ruling.

As if taunting the Philippines and the international community, China has wantonly displayed its utter disregard of the arbitral ruling and Philippine sovereignty through a combination of actions that may only be interpreted as hostile. They have built permanent structures in the disputed territories, they have encroached on our exclusive economic zone, they have prevented our citizens from being within our territorial waters, and they have ravaged our natural resources.

Why the deafening silence in response to all these? Why have we not heard anything patriotically encouraging from our leaders? Is this acquiescence on the part of the government?

He who is silent is taken to agree—qui tacet consentire videtur. Are our leaders deliberately turning a blind eye to China’s aggression to the extent that Beijing’s gains now would be irreversible in the future? I certainly hope not because that looks and sounds a lot like treason.

While the government has filed diplomatic protests—at times, seemingly, out of grudging obligation—there seems to be no inclination to have a national discourse. The passivity and apathy seem to be rubbing off to the rest of the nation. Why is there a squeak when there should be a howl? Why are our political leaders more resigned than outraged?

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio urged Filipino communicators to launch a South China Sea Truth Movement to help correct China’s “fake historical claim” that they own almost the entire South China Sea because the Duterte administration is not keen on doing so. Carpio added that we can invite the peoples of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, countries whose exclusive economic zones are also encroached by China’s nine-dashed line, to join us in this movement.

On the other hand, in a round-table discussion recently organized by Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, Gregory Poling, executive director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, believes that the current environmental crises in the South China Sea deserve priority attention and action of the Philippines and every other claimant country.

According to Poling, “the South China Sea’s fisheries and marine environment are under dire threat. A series of environmental crises—overfishing, dredging and island building, and destructive clam harvesting practices—have been piled one atop the other, pushing one of the world’s most productive fishing zones to the brink of collapse. Fishers from the Philippines, China, and Vietnam are on the frontlines of disputes in these contested waters, and they will be the ones who suffer most if the claimant states fail to effectively manage fisheries and preserve the marine environment.”

He added that 20 years from now, we may still be discussing the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. That is indeed a very likely scenario. 

But in 20 years at the rate of destruction they are experiencing now, the marine conditions in those disputed areas may be beyond repair and rescue.

While the Hong Kong incident was supposed to send a chilling effect, as if quietly reminding that those who antagonize China do so at their own peril, let us take the high approval ratings out for a spin and ask the Filipinos to rally behind this cause. Let us forge an alliance with Vietnam to present a stronger front. Let us take our case to the global community and put pressure on China. 

There are so many things that we can do. Now is not the time to be timid.

Mr. President, it is time to show the Filipinos that you really are on our side. Speak up on our behalf and give China a piece of our mind.

Edwin Santiago is the executive director of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, a partner of

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