“The Post-Sovereign Philippines” by Malcolm Cook

2019/60, 12 July 2019

What matters to international policy analysts is often largely immaterial to voters. Much has been written by analysts criticizing the Duterte administration’s deference to China, particularly in the West Philippine Sea. Yet, the latest Social Weather Stations’ quarterly survey provides a humbling reality check.
89% disagreed with the statement that the Philippine government should “leave China alone with its infrastructures and military presence in the claimed territories {in the West Philippine Sea}”. 91% thought it is important for the Philippines to get back control of these territories lost to China as well.

The Duterte administration is currently choosing to leave China alone with its infrastructure development and military presence in the West Philippine Sea and to let Chinese fishing vessels exploit the bounty of these waters. This, despite the Philippine constitution requiring that “the State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.” One would think there would be political consequences.

However, in this poll, taken two weeks after a Chinese trawler – illegally fishing deep in the West Philippine Sea – rammed a Filipino fishing vessel and abandoned the benighted crew, President Duterte scored his highest satisfaction rating so far of 80% with only 12% dissatisfied.

This vast gap between Filipinos strong disapproval of the president’s actively permissive response to China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea and strong support for President Duterte in general has been consistent during the term of the Duterte presidency.
This consistent gap strongly suggests that Filipinos do not put too much weight on defending Philippine sovereign rights against China in the West Philippine Sea when it comes to their appraisal of President Duterte. Pulse Asia polling data supports this post-sovereign view of national leadership. In the September 2016 and March 2017 Ulat ng Bayan polls, only 2% of the respondents chose “defending the integrity of Philippine territory against foreigners” as one of the top two concerns of the government from a list of 15 options. Among the 15 national concerns listed, only changing the Constitution was deemed less urgent.
When asked directly about defending Philippine sovereign rights against China in the West Philippine Sea, those polled are strongly in favour. When asked how important this is, few rate it highly or let it negatively affect their view of a president manifestly not doing so. 

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.