When diplomatic formalities failed to eject Chinese ships from the West Philippine Sea, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said plainly, China should just GTFO or "get the f*ck out."
While Locsin's outburst was "amusing," China is a "patient player" that can differentiate a president's words from that of a subordinate, said Renato de Castro, an international studies professor from the De La Salle University.
Later that Monday night, President Rodrigo Duterte said there was no need to be "rude and disrespectful" despite China's refusal to leave. He did not mention his top diplomat by name.
"Winston Churchill, during the darkest days of Dunkirk—when British Forces were being evacuated from the continent—said 'we will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them on the streets. We will never surrender.' But we have this president who already indicated that he's already surrendering even before the fight has begun," said de Castro.
De Castro is a fellow at the eponymous ADRI think-tank of former Foreign Affairs Sec. Albert del Rosario, who led the Philippines' winning case against China before a UN-backed arbitration court. Duterte had routinely fumed at Del Rosario in his weekly speeches to the nation, blaming him for the state of affairs at the West Philippine Sea, where China has effective control.
Also on Monday, Duterte said he "never" promised to retake the West Philippine Sea during the 2016 presidential campaign, despite his viral comments at that time that he would ride a jet ski to the disputed reefs and outcrops.
Words versus actions
Diplomacy is like a velvet glove worn to flex, without entirely concealing, military might, something the Philippines doesn't have, said De Castro. "It has to be backed with something concrete that would make China think twice on maintaining those ships," he said.
Apart from DFA's protests, the Philippines has deployed more patrol vessels, including coast guard and navy ships, to intensify surveillance in the disputed waters. There were joint drills between Filipino and U.S. troops and a phone call between Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin.
These actions are merely "symbolic" said de Castro, as the country has yet to show a unified foreign policy strategy towards China. Even if the secretaries of foreign affairs and defense say that Chinese presence is a challenge, it gets confusing when statements from the Palace highlight Beijing's aid.
On Sunday night, Lorenzana issued a rare video statement on Facebook saying he was not clashing with Duterte on China.
Duterte's words have deep implications, de Castro said.
The president's statement from last week saying "there's enough fish to quarrel about" in the West Philippine Sea was disputed by a group of fisheries experts. They said officials "should refrain from downplaying the importance of the WPS as a major fishing ground", as one-third of the total marine fish catch in the country come from the region.
The claim that China is "in possession" of South China Sea is also untrue, said de Castro. Other claimants are refusing to back down. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is also there, for freedom of navigation patrols.
Pending a coherent national strategy, the Philippines is also burdened by the larger picture: "how do we deal with an emergent and expansionist China, which will be a concern not only in this administration but in future administrations and future generations of Filipinos?" he said.
"We cannot consider China as the best of our friends if it's bent on basically expanding, and of course, annexing our Exclusive Economic Zones. [We need] somebody who would tell us how we have to deal with this quintessential security challenge of the 21st century," said de Castro.