FACT CHECK South China Sea: Waters of Contention

VERA FILES FACT CHECK: After asserting arbitral win in UN, Duterte now calls it ‘just a piece of paper’

In reiterating his stance on avoiding “trouble” with China, President Rodrigo Duterte called the Philippines’ historic arbitral win in 2016 against the Asian giant on the South China Sea dispute as “just a [piece of] paper” that he would “throw into the wastebasket,” in a televised address on May 5.

This was a complete turnaround from the tone of his speech at the 75th session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in September 2020, during which he “firmly reject[ed]” attempts to “undermine” the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte negates Locsin, contradicts past pronouncements in raising arbitral win in UN)

In July 2016, days into Duterte’s term, the arbitral tribunal held that there was “no legal basis” behind China’s nine-dash line claim covering almost the entire South China Sea, of which the West Philippine Sea is part.

Watch this video:

This is not the first time Duterte shifted gears regarding the 2016 PCA ruling. In September 2019, the president went from “invoking” to “ignoring” the arbitral win in order to pursue more “economic” agreements with China. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte shifts from ‘invoking’ to ‘ignoring’ the PCA ruling)

On May 3, Duterte falsely claimed that he “never mentioned” the maritime dispute between the two countries during his campaign in the 2016 national elections. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte claims he ‘never mentioned’ PH-China maritime row in 2016 campaign. He did.)

The president’s May 5 pronouncements on the arbitral ruling echoes his stance during his penultimate State of the Nation Address in July 2020, where he said:

“China is claiming it (West Philippine Sea). We are claiming it. China has the arms, we do not have it. So, it is [as] simple as that. They are in possession of the property … So what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can, but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan (I am useless in [in this case]).”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, The 2020 State of the Nation Address, July 27, 2020, watch from 1:34:12 to 1:35:18

The claim that China is “in possession” of the entire West Philippine Sea is also not true. (See #SONA2020 VERA Files’ live fact check; VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Three things Duterte got wrong on the PH-China maritime standoff)

On May 7, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement stating that Duterte’s remarks at the 75th UN General Assembly on the arbitral award “stands as the supreme expression of foreign policy on the West Philippine Sea issue.”

It said the department will:

“…continue to implement the president’s foreign policy statement in accordance with Philippine national interest.”



Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), May 5, 2021

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Statement of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte during the General Debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 22, 2020

Permanent Court of Arbitration, South China Sea Arbitral Award, July 12, 2016

Department of Foreign Affairs, !!READ!! #DFAStatement: On the President’s Recent Remarks on the Arbitral Award (Archived), May 7, 2021


(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.)