Sen. Manny Pacquiao said he was voicing the "majority" sentiment on the West Philippine Sea dispute with China after President Rodrigo Duterte said the boxing champ was speaking from "very shallow knowledge" of diplomacy.
This exchange between two allies, no matter how it plays out, shows how important the China dispute is to the electorate, so much so that possible contenders for the 2022 elections have begun talking about it even before they make their candidacies official.
It's a years-long deadlock. China wants what is within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone or EEZ, building fortresses on reefs and threatening Filipino fishermen. It insists on its historic claim that encompasses nearly all of the South China Sea.
Seven in 10 Filipinos agree that the Philippines should assert its rights over disputed territories, according to a July 3-6, 2020 Social Weather Stations survey. Four out of five said Manila should form alliances with other governments to defend its rights in the West Philippine Sea.
“Dapat firm ang position natin. Hindi tayo dapat nagbabago ng posisyon,” political analyst Ramon Casiple told reportr.
“Ang question actually ay hindi doon sa kung anong posisyon kundi paano dalhin ang posisyon. Yan ang magiging usapin,” said Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
MORE ON WEST PHILIPPINE SEA:
Duterte takes on the Pac-Man
The President, in an interview with TV pastor Apollo Quiboloy, said Pacquiao should study harder on the sea disputes.
Pacquiao had called Duterte's response "lacking", prompting a delayed yet pointed response to a party-mate whom Malacanang said was among his "options" to succeed him in 2022.
“I firmly believe that my statement reflects the sentiment of majority of the Filipinos, that we should stand strong in protecting our sovereign rights while pursuing a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the dispute," Pacquiao said.
Duterte said of the Pac-man's jab, which the senator claimed was not a criticism: "It's about foreign policy. I would not want to degrade him but next time he should... mag-aral ka muna nang husto," Duterte said. "Apparently this guy has a very shallow knowledge."
Election issue: China and the West Philippine Sea
The West Philippine Sea will be one of the talking points of the campaign that will also surely put the spotlight on COVID-19 response, Casiple said.
“I would expect na lilitaw yan sa eleksyon. Yung mga kalaban ng administrasyon, malamang dadalhin nila yan,” Casiple said
In 2019, senatorial candidates under the Otso Diretso opposition coalition raised the issue of the West Philippine Sea, pointing out the shortcomings of the current administration.
Some of the candidates went to Masinloc, Zambales carrying the Philippine flag to show their full support in the fight against Chinese incursions in the disputed territories. The slate included a retired Marine captain, Gary Alejano.
The 1Samabayan opposition coalition will unveil its nominees for the 2022 elections on June 12, Independence Day. The West Philippine Sea will likely be one of the issues as its co-convenor is former Supreme Justice Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, Casiple said.
Carpio helped the country win its case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands in 2016. The former justice said in 2020 that voters should consider the West Philippine Sea issue in choosing who to elect next year.
“We must make it an election issue this 2022. We must vote for a government that will assert and preserve our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
There's still the pandemic.
Although the maritime dispute is an important matter, voters may be more interested on issues that have a more immediate impact on their lives, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy, Casiple said.
The deepest recession since World War II, in fact, is largely attributed to large-scale lockdowns at the start of the pandemic in 2020.
“Yung South China Sea, in a sense nationalist issue yan. Importante pa rin kasi napapansin yan, pero hindi ganun ka-immediate o ganun kalaki ang importansya kung botante ang pag-uusapan,” he said.
“Definitely issue yan pero kung paano i-handle ng kandidato, hindi pa natin alam,” he added.