Duterte to test South China Sea waters

Chinese forces patrol the Spratly islands, which Beijing claims as its own © Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte heads to China and Japan this week for talks that will test whether his anti-US rhetoric will lead to a fundamental security shake-up on Asia’s seas.

The firebrand new leader has vowed to pull Manila away from its long alliance with Washington and tilt towards Beijing — a move that would have a huge impact on the regional duel over rights to seas and islands. 

But some analysts say Mr Duterte has unrealistic expectations about what China will give him — and has already lessened his leverage with Beijing by publicly repudiating the US. 

Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, said Mr Duterte would probably end up disappointed if he expected some kind of grand bargain, in which the Philippines downgraded its security relationship with the US in exchange for Chinese financial aid and concessions on disputed territory. 

Mr Heydarian said: “There will be a lot of over-the-top statements and symbolic agreements, but I’m really quite sceptical that China will give the Philippines a mutually satisfactory deal. Duterte seems to be a bit naive, thinking that the Chinese, out of goodwill and appreciation of his anti-American stance, will suddenly just give him something.” 

Mr Duterte, who took office in June, is due to fly to Beijing on Tuesday and then to Tokyo the following week. Earlier this month, the outspoken leader in Manila told President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and warned Washington that he might loosen a security relationship enshrined in a 1951 treaty, seeking arms from Beijing and Moscow instead. 

Philippine officials have sent mixed signals since then. Mr Duterte himself last week pledged to honour existing treaties and military alliances, but insisted he would still “realign” his country’s foreign policy and end joint military exercises with the US. Daniel Russel, the Obama administration’s top diplomat for Asia, said he believed Manila would make decisions on its alliances in a “deliberate and thoughtful way”, despite all the “noise” and “stray voltage”. 

Dennis Wilder, professor at Georgetown University in Washington, warned that Mr Duterte’s criticisms of Washington might have already weakened his negotiating hand with Beijing. The Philippine leader needed to be mindful of the 2012 debacle over the Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop disputed by Beijing and Manila, Prof Wilder added. The Philippines government has claimed China failed to honour an agreement to remove its presence from the area — an allegation Beijing denies. 

“China did not hold up its end of the bargain to withdraw its fishing fleet from the Scarborough Shoal,” Prof Wilder said. “Duterte would be wise not to rush into a deal.” 

China’s wishlist from Mr Duterte is likely to include a repudiation of an international tribunal case brought by the previous Philippine government that resulted in a stinging ruling in July against Beijing’s claims to much of Southeast Asia’s seas. More broadly, President Xi Jinping’s administration is looking for a notable foreign policy success to enhance its authority. 

Xu Lipin, a senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ National Institute of International Strategy, downplayed the likelihood of any far reaching deal, however. He said: “Achieving major breakthroughs in the South China Sea disputes is unrealistic from the current outlook. But it is possible that the two countries may expect to have co-operation in fishing and oil-gas exploration, setting a model for the development of South China Sea for other countries.” 

Walden Bello, an academic and former Philippines legislator, said he expected Mr Duterte to try to “patch things up” with China, even if his room for manoeuvre was limited by the Philippine defence and police establishments’ commitment to the existing US alliance. Mr Bello said: “The Chinese are still trying to figure him out, not fully realising what a godsend he is. But once they get their act together, they’ll play him for all his worth against Washington.” 

Mr Duterte’s promised “pivot to China” has caused only modest concern so far in Japan, the second stop on his regional diplomatic tour — and the country whose strategic interests would be most threatened by such a shift. Japanese officials’ confidence is buoyed by a long history of dealings with the president going back to his days as mayor of Davao, on the southern island of Mindanao. Japan’s international aid agency has invested billions of yen over decades in an effort to end long-running conflict between insurgents and government forces there. 

Tokyo regards the Philippines as one of its top strategic priorities and has built up economic and defence co-operation. Given its own maritime disputes with China, Japan wants to maintain a common front with other countries in the region. 

The Philippine president this month offered his “heartfelt thanks” to Tokyo for the first of 10 coast guard vessels it is giving to Manila. “Japan’s relations with president Duterte have got off to a very favourable start,” said Tsutomu Kikuchi, professor of international politics at Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University. 

Japan reads Mr Duterte’s criticism of the US more as an assertion of Philippine nationalism against its old colonial master, rather than a strategic shift to China. But foreign ministry officials do worry that any estrangement between Manila and Washington will make it harder to counter Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. 


Leave a Reply