The danger of Duterte’s China and South China Sea approach
We need to be clear about the risks and why they may matter.
Hearing the foreign policy rhetoric of the Philippines’ newly inaugurated president Rodrigo Duterte, the only thing that is constant appears to be change. Needless to say, that’s not been very reassuring to those watching from afar, even if seasoned observers emphasize that it is still unclear how much of that rhetoric will actually translate into reality and that his advisers could serve as checks against the President’s colorful views once the administration actually gets going.
Of the subjects Duterte has opined about thus far, none has attracted more interest than China and the South China Sea, with some worrying that he may seek to embrace Beijing and spurn Washington for reasons ranging from economic pragmatism to his own ideological biases. With the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) now confirming that it will issue its verdict on Manila’s case against Beijing on July 12, it is worth exploring how a Duterte administration might or might not alter the Philippines’ South China Sea approach, and the real risks inherent in such shifts for not only the country but also the region and other concerned actors as well.
To be clear, the danger here is not that Duterte will open bilateral talks with Beijing on the South China Sea or undertake major foreign policy realignments like moving the Philippines closer to China, contrary to what some have suggested. Every Southeast Asian state is trying to pursue good ties with China to varying degrees despite concerns about its rise, and the Philippines is no different.
Furthermore, even members of the former Aquino administration – including his former foreign minister Albert del Rosario – have made clear that Manila had pursued the PCA case in response to China’s unlawful assertiveness but always left open the possibility of future talks with Beijing following a verdict. Additionally, for all Duterte’s posturing, seasoned observers know that like any president, he is hamstrung by other factors that govern Manila’s alignments with major powers, including popular opinion and the country’s weak military which in part accounts for the recent strengthening of its alliance with the United States and strategic partnerships with other countries like Japan.
Rather, the real danger of Duterte’s approach to China and the South China Sea is that his administration will seek to engage Beijing in a way that not only undermines Philippine interests in terms of its relationship with China, but undercuts the regional unity and global solidarity needed to constrain Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Before contemplating what various actors should do, which many commentators are quick to jump to, it is worth first spelling out exactly what the risks are in Duterte’s potential approach on this issue in the bilateral, regional and global domains.
Misreading bilateral ties
Bilaterally, the risk is that Duterte might adopt an approach towards China that would undermine Philippine interests.
Post-PCA verdict, the task of any Philippine government – including one led by Aquino if he were still in power – would be to try to get Sino-Philippine relations back on track by better managing the South China Sea issue with China while also pursuing new opportunities with Beijing, largely in the economic domain. From a Philippine perspective, the key would be to enter talks with China ready to fully exploit Manila’s leverage across a range of areas in the bilateral relationship, using a mixture of carrots and sticks.