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SONA 2019 Promise Tracker: Foreign Relations

The rising tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea hogged President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth state of the nation address in 2019, where he promised two things that remain hanging to this day:

Jul 24, 2020

Meeko Angela Camba


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The rising tensions with China in the West Philippine Sea hogged President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth state of the nation address in 2019, where he promised two things that remain hanging to this day:

First, to assert the country’s rights over disputed maritime areas; and second, to seek compensation for the sinking of an anchored Philippine fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in Recto Bank (international name: Reed Bank) – an incident that almost killed 22 Filipino fishermen. (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The evolving statements on the Recto Bank allision: a visual timeline)

The Palace maintains that its friendly relations with China would benefit the country should the latter discover a cure for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). This, amid criticisms that the administration acted belatedly in addressing the crisis for fear of diplomatic repercussions from China, where the outbreak first emerged. (See TIMELINE: PH GOV’T INITIAL RESPONSE TO COVID-19)

The Asian giant has also not stopped its aggressive actions to assert its debunked nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea despite the pandemic.

Prior to the virus outbreak, Duterte paid a second visit to Russia, which yielded 10 bilateral deals, including a memorandum of intent to explore possible construction of nuclear power plants in the Philippines.

The president also visited China, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea, where he and South Korean President Moon Jae-in inked four new agreements and a joint statement on a proposed free trade deal.

Duterte’s fourth year in office was also marked by his ban on all loan and grant agreements with Iceland and other countries that co-sponsored or voted in favor of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council resolution that sought to probe the human rights situation in the country.

He later reversed this order in February. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Locsin changes tune on aid from UNHRC resolution signatories)

The president made a similar turnaround when he moved to end the country’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States (U.S.) that same month, then changed his mind when he suspended the termination for at least six months in June in light of “political and other developments in the region.” (See VERA FILES FACT SHEET: The Visiting Forces Agreement, explained, VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte changes tune on terminating PH-US VFA)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines has received aid—in cash or in kind, such as personal protective equipment for health workers, face masks, and other medical equipment—from neighbors and allies including Singapore, China, the U.S., Japan, Brunei, South Korea, and Taiwan.

See how the president has fared in his promises on foreign policy.

PROMISE: Assert rights over West Philippine Sea

“…I will [protect our territorial waters and natural resources] in a peaceful way…Let me assure you that national honor and territorial integrity shall be foremost in our mind, and when we may take the next steps in our smoldering controversy over the lines of our arbitral ruling, the West Philippine Sea is ours. There [are] no ifs and buts.” (SONA 2019)

“Our improved relationship with China, however, does not mean that we will waver in our commitment to defend our interests in the West Philippine Sea.” (SONA 2018)

A month after his fourth SONA, Duterte went on his fifth visit to China for his eight bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The trip yielded six new deals, and the creation of a joint steering committee and a working group tasked to negotiate the terms on oil and gas development in disputed areas within the West Philippine Sea (the Philippine name for portions of the South China Sea adjacent to the Philippines). The committee held its first meeting on Oct. 28, 2019 in Beijing.

Upon his return, however, Duterte said he and Xi had agreed to “ignore” the Philippines’ historic win on the South China Sea dispute at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to pursue such “economic activity.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte shifts from ‘invoking’ to ‘ignoring’ the PCA ruling)

The 2016 PCA ruling invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim and declared certain features in the South China Sea to be within the Philippine exclusive economic zone.

While Beijing continues to deny the validity of the arbitral ruling, retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has said the signing of the memorandum of understanding and terms of reference for the oil and gas development was “implied admission” by China that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the disputed areas.

Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, China has not stopped from expanding its control over the South China Sea, including in areas within Philippine territory.

On April 22, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said he filed two diplomatic protests against Beijing for two incidents:

In his intervention during the 36th ASEAN Summit, Duterte, without naming specifics, talked about “alarming incidents” in the South China Sea and called on parties to “refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law.”

The president, who also serves as the country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, again pushed for the “early conclusion” of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Carpio, who played a crucial role in the country’s victory at the Hague-based arbitral tribunal, has warned that Beijing will not sign a code of conduct until it has finished with its island-building activities.

The former justice instead outlined several options available to the government to assert its rights over the West Philippine Sea — most of which involve working with other aggrieved parties, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

In a statement marking the fourth anniversary of the country’s victory, Locsin said the Philippines will not “compromise or change” its adherence to the arbitral award and called it “non-negotiable.”

That being said, both Locsin and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said the dispute is “not the sum total” of the two countries’ relationship.

PROMISE: Exact liability, compensation in Recto Bank allision case

“They (China) wanted to talk, tapos ayaw dito (Philippines). And so, ‘So sige, we will investigate and you (China) investigate, and when you are ready, we shall meet and compare notes, and let us determine who pays for what damage.’” (SONA 2019)

In Progress

On Aug. 28, 2019, the same day Duterte left for his fifth visit to China, a Chinese fishing association issued an apology to the 22 Filipino fishermen on behalf of the owner of the Chinese vessel. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Apology from Chinese association falsely claims Recto Bank is China territory)

In its letter, the association “requested” the Philippine side to “file a specific appeal for the civil compensation based on the actual loss,” and committed to “urge” the Chinese shipowner to “actively coordinate with the Philippine side to expedite the latter’s claim for compensation.”

More than a year since the incident, the issue has yet to be settled.

In a June 22 interview with ANC, Locsin said both the Philippines and China, in separate investigations, have found that it was the privately-owned Chinese vessel at fault and that it was now up to the Department of Justice (DOJ) to determine the amount of damages to be paid.

However, following Locsin’s interview, Justice Secretary Menardo Gueverra told reporters he does not remember the DOJ being assigned to perform such task, but will be “happy to help.”

The justice secretary then said he had already given instructions to the provincial prosecutor’s office nearest the place of residence of the affected fishermen to “gather necessary information.”

The Chinese Embassy in Manila in a June 30 statement said it has been “working closely with the Philippine side to solve the case,” adding that the concerned Chinese fishing association had “already offered a compensation proposal” and is “waiting for formal feedback.”


RTVMalacanang, State of the Nation Address (SONA) 2019 07/22/2019, July 22, 2019

Senate of the Philippines, Senate Resolution 362, April 16, 2020

Rappler, Filipinos slam gov’t, demand China travel ban amid 1st coronavirus case in PH, Jan. 30, 2020

Rappler, Even with coronavirus scare, no mainland Chinese travel ban for now – Duque, Jan. 29, 2020

Rappler, Beijing continues South China Sea aggression during pandemic, May 13, 2020, Analyst says COVID-19 pandemic not slowing China conquest of South China Sea, April 14, 2020

CNN Philippines, COVID-19 not stopping ‘steady increase of Chinese harassment’ in South China Sea, April 14, 2020

ABS-CBN News, Philippines, Russia ink 10 business agreements, Oct. 4, 2019, Duterte flies back to PH after 5-day Russia visit, Oct. 6, 2019

CNN Philippines, Philippines, Russia agree to explore possible building of nuclear power plants, Oct. 5, 2019

Rappler, 5 PH-South Korea deals signed, but no free trade agreement yet, Nov. 26, 2019, PH, Korea to firm up free-trade deal, Nov. 26, 2019, Philippines-South Korea sign 4 agreements during Duterte visit, Nov. 25, 2019

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, A/HRC/41/L.20 Promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines, July 5, 2019

Memorandum lifting UNHRC signatory aid ban, Feb. 27, 2020

Teodoro Locsin Jr. official Twitter account, “@DFAPHL The Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy of the United States has received the notice of termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement…,” Feb. 11, 2020


COVID-19 aid

On asserting rights in WPS

On Recto Bank incident

(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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