When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) to Congress, he stood as the most popularly approved leader in the nation’s history.

The populist leader rarely veered off his scripted notes, sticking to an almost two-hour-long prepared speech which touched on issues of national concern while trumpeting his three-year-old government’s reputed achievements.

As Duterte enters his final half of his six-year single term, Duterte is expected to bid to cement his legacy in myriad ways, not least through constitutional change that will fundamentally transform the nation’s system of governance towards federalism.

But he is also under fire on several fronts, namely in regard to his lethal drug war and embrace of China.

Speaking before a legislature packed with political allies coming off a resounding mid-term election win in May, Duterte had reason to sound triumphant.

Recent opinion surveys show his approval rating is higher than any other Philippine leader at this point in their presidencies, with eight out of 10 Filipinos in favor of his performance.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address at Congress in Manila on July 22, 2019. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

At times, however, Duterte was defensive and defiant in his anticipated address, acknowledging his failure to curb corruption, crime and narcotics trafficking – despite his signature drug war policy that has resulted in the deaths of thousands of suspects.

“I will end my term fighting,” he said, reaffirming his commitment to a controversial campaign that has become the subject of United Nations and International Criminal Court inquiries for possible crimes against humanity.

This month, Iceland led a UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate the extrajudicial killings, a proposal Duterte rejected out of hand while taking a swipe at the nation, bizarrely claiming that its people “only eat ice” and hence do not understand the Philippines.

At home, however, 60% of Filipinos surveyed by the Social Weather Stations, a local pollster, approved of Iceland’s call for a probe into the killings. Duterte has so far deflected international criticism by pointing to opinion surveys that show Filipinos widely support his drug war, at least in principle if not tactic.

He seemed most beleaguered, however, when addressing his controversial and widely challenged engagement policy towards China.

While widely popular, the Filipino leader has been isolated on the issue, especially since last month’s ramming and sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a suspected Chinese militia vessel in the contested Reed Bank area of the South China Sea.

Activists hold placards with anti-China slogans during a protest in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila on June 12, 2019, Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Duterte tried to downplay the incident as a “little maritime incident”, parroting China’s line, while repeatedly portraying Beijing as a “friend.”

A majority of Filipinos, however, disagree with his conciliatory position, a line his opponents have portrayed as appeasement to the detriment of sovereignty.

Another Social Weather Stations survey, conducted from June 22-26, showed that a whopping 93% of Filipinos believe “it is important that the Philippines regain control of the islands occupied by China in the West Philippine Sea.”

Meanwhile, China’s net trust rating fell to a new low of -35%, a clear rejection of Duterte’s positive portrayal of his strategic and economic patron. In his speech, Duterte controversially insisted that resisting China will lead to war.

“War leaves behind widows. War leaves behind orphans,” the Filipino president claimed in a passage in his speech, though there have been no armed skirmishes in the maritime area for decades.

The leader emphasized the need for a “delicate balancing act” as “avoidance of conflict” with China is his top policy priority.
“China also claims [contested land features in Philippine waters] and is in possession [of them]. That’s the problem!” he insisted, portraying his defeatism as pragmatism.

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Twitter

Rebuffing critics who have called for a tougher stance, Duterte argued that it is “better” to negotiate “in the privacy of a conference room” than engage in public spats with China.

Significantly, Duterte also shifted blame to the country’s only treaty ally, the United States, claiming its decision to cancel small arms sales to the Philippine National Police (PNP) on human rights concerns as the reason why he was “forced to go to China.”

He failed to mention, however, that Washington has expanded its arms sales and security cooperation with the Philippine military, which is in charge of defending national waters.

Duterte also blamed the previous Benigno Aquino administration for the “fiasco” of China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, a feature within the Philippines exclusive economic zone (EEZ), following a naval standoff in mid-2012. China has since regularly harassed Filipino vessels that have entered the feature’s waters.

He also strongly defended his recent decision to allow Chinese fishermen to roam and exploit Philippine waters in the South China Sea, a recently revealed concession he said he made to avoid war, but one that critics say violates Philippine law.

Citing a July 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at the Hague that ruled in favor of the Philippines over China in their South China Sea disputes, Duterte argued that international law allows for resource-sharing within a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Duterte had earlier said he is “setting aside” the landmark ruling in order to facilitate rapprochement with China, so his invocation of the ruling to justify cooperation with China caught many observers by surprise. Beijing has rejected and ignored the ruling.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo" AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool

Duterte is now under opposition fire to specify whether his informal fishing agreement with China covers the Philippines’ entire EEZ in the South China Sea, or only the waters surrounding the Scarborough Shoal.

The timing of the deal, critics say, is questionable. The Philippines is now grappling with collapsing fishing stocks amid an onslaught of illegal, underreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, especially from China.

According to a recent scientific study, the Philippines is losing more than US$600 million due to China’s fishing-related destruction of coral reefs in the area. It’s a cost and policy he may be called to account for in future SONAs.