In the third presidential debate of the 2016 elections, Rodrigo Duterte boldly promised that he will personally ride a jet ski and plant the Philippine flag in the Spratly Islands or Scarborough Shoal and assert the country’s sovereignty amid China’s encroachment.
Two years later in Aurora province, two government officials and the presidential son rode jet skis in the waters of Casiguran municipality to assert a claim in the undisputed Philippine Rise 135 miles away.
How did Duterte’s daring promise when he was still a candidate evolve into a “publicity stunt” which he did not even take part in and was conducted some 900 kilometers away from the Spratly Islands?
‘I’ve long wanted to become a hero’
Duterte responded to a question from a Filipino fisherman during the debate on how can the presidential candidates will help fisherfolk to fish safely in the West Philippine Sea without being shooed away by the Chinese coastguard.
“I will ask the navy to bring me to the nearest boundary dyan sa Spratly – Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay ako ng jet ski, dala-dala ko yung flag ng Pilipino at pupunta ako doon sa airport nila tapos itanim ko, then I would say, ‘This is ours and do what you want with me.’ Bahala na kayo,” then Davao city mayor said.
“I would state that claim and if they want to, you know – eh matagal ko ng ambisyon yan na maging hero rin ako. Pag pinatay nila ako doon, bahala na kayong umiyak dito sa Pilipinas,” he added.
However, in an interview with Al Jazeera a few months after winning the presidency, Duterte dismissed his pledge as a “hyperbole.”
“It was a hyperbole… You cannot expect me to ride (a jet ski), I don’t even know how to swim,” Duterte said in the interview.
After multiple criticisms and the unhindered militarization of China in reclaimed islands in the Spratlys, Duterte admitted the pledge was just a joke in March 2018.
“When I said I would go to China on a jet ski, that’s nonsense,” the firebrand president said which elicited laughter from audience composed of members of the Philippine National Police’s SWAT units.
‘Mere publicity stunt’
Amid criticisms against Duterte for not fulfilling one of his most famous campaign promises, government officials organized the jet ski event in Casiguran to commemorate the first year since the renaming of Benham Rise to Philippine Rise, a 13-million hectare undersea plateau that has been declared as part of Philippine territory by the United Nations as far back as 2012.
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Special Assistant to the President Bong Go, and the president’s son Sebastian Duterte rode jet skis to send off 50 Filipino scientists who will explore and conduct research projects.
Detained Senator Leila de Lima, one of the most vocal administration critic, described the event as a “ridiculous but expensive show” and a “total waste of the people’s hard-earned money.”
Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano said that it was a “PR stunt which missed its target, in both purpose and execution.”
Critics on social media also did not hold back on their frustrations over the spectacle.
The jet-ski thing in Casiguran Bay, Aurora was a publicity stunt gone wrong! Dapat sa may Benham Rise mismo ‘yan o kaya sa may Kalayaan Group of Islands near sa West Philippine sea! I was amused by that! I swear!
— James Romer Velina (@JamesVelinaLXIX) May 16, 2018
China had successfully named five features of the underwater region, namely, Haidongqing Seamount, Jinghao Seamount, Tianbao Seamount, Jujiu Seamounts and Cuiqiao Hill.
Significance of Philippine Rise
The Philippine Rise has been a part of Filipino culture before the conduct of explorations began.
The plateau was once called “Kalipung-awan” or a “forlorn place,” in Catanduanes and has been a favorite fishing spot by Catanduanes fishermen.
This undersea region was named after the American admiral geologist Andrew Benham, who found it in 1933.
The Philippine Rise stretches from the coasts of Cagayan to the Bicol region.
The plateau had been declared part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf since April 2012 when the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) approved the country’s territorial claim.
Aside from China, other countries like the United States, Japan, and South Korea have also requested to explore the undersea region.