Satire, creative protest, destabilization plot, or performance art? Nobody knows for sure, but earlier today, several Metro Manila footbridges were used to hang and display tarpaulin banners that read "Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China" in both English and Mandarin. These banners were visible to motorists on main roads like D. Tuazon in Quezon City and C5-Kalayaan; as well as in Philcoa and near NAIA Terminal 1. Many have been quick to note that today happens to be the second anniversary of the UNCLOS ruling that granted us the West Philippine Sea against China.
On July 12, 2016, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea's arbitration declared that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights to the West Philippine Sea, and that China's nine-dash line doesn't, well, hold water. As part of decades-long territorial disputes over maritime features in the region, China submitted historical documents of the "nine-dash line" to the UN in 2009, attempting to lay claim to parts of the Philippines' western seaboard. But the UN repeatedly invalidated China's claims, until an arbitration tribunal finally ruled in our favor. The decision, which came three years after the Philippines filed its case against China, was considered a historic victory for us and a humiliating defeat for them.
But the enforcement of that decision under President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office just weeks before the decision was rendered, has been a topic of heated debate. Duterte, who during the campaign season was adamant about our ownership of the West Philippine Sea (his jet ski remarks have become emblematic of the issue), seems to have, over time, developed friendlier relations with China. As his leniency on the UNCLOS ruling fluctuated, Duterte even joked, at least twice, about the Philippines becoming a province of China ("Gusto ninyo, gawin niyo na lang kaming province; Fujian pati Philippine province of China; eh di wala tayong problema").
Critics of the administration's inaction against China have been quick to point out the implications: Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, who was part of the team that argued the Philippines' case to the arbitration tribunal, thinks that our leniency has emboldened China to militarize parts of the South China Sea despite having agreed not to. Still, the Palace continues to explain that the Philippines will not surrender its sovereign rights, and that we are simply trying to nurture better political and economic relations with China.
The Philippines' ability to stand up for our victory in the ruling has been one of the divisive issues faced by this administration, which explains why the tarpaulin banners have become so controversial. It all looks like someone out there is trying to pull a Banksy: political satire by way of guerilla street art.
For its part, Malacañang has renounced the banners and their apparent dissent-by-irony. "It’s absurd, and I’m sure it’s the enemies of our government behind it," said Presidential spokesman Harry Roque. "So to them: Try again. You need a better gimmick than that."
But if indeed the banners were meant to call attention to the Duterte administration's diplomatic relations with China, then surely they've served their purpose. Filipinos online are up in arms about the banners and the message they intend to send.
The banners are now being removed by MMDA personnel, and CCTV footage will be reviewed accordingly. So whoever did this has had their fun, and motorists can once again enjoy their time in traffic without the disturbance of a glaring political message. But hopefully, we can spend that time thinking about what the government is and isn't doing about a victory that we had already won.