Duterte, China and the United States

by Florence Principe / 8 July 2016 / APPFI.PH

A Toxic Relationship. Philippines-China relations have been rocky under the Aquino government. Aquino brought the dispute to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration, strengthened ties with the United States through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and refused to hold bilateral talks related to the maritime dispute. Such actions have of course embarrassed and antagonized China, turning Philippines-China relations into its current toxic state.

Renewed Hope? The electoral triumph of President Rodrigo Duterte has led many to think that this forebodes the betterment of relations. During his campaign, he had expressed willingness to hold bilateral talks and cooperate with China. His initial statements insinuated that he preferred holding direct negotiatons with China and shelving issues of sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea, in exchange for economic privileges China can offer the country. His statements were welcomed by China; upon the announcement of his victory, Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua was among the first to congratulate Duterte stating their hope for better relations under the new administration. China also highly encouraged the Philippines to settle the disputes bilaterally and to drop the case, as China would not adhere to the arbitration results. For China, the election of Duterte is an opportunity to carry on the bilateral consultations and negotiations that they had repeatedly failed to persuade President Aquino to pursue.

Duterte’s stance in the dispute is however complex. Despite being vocal about his preference for amicable ties with China, as President-elect he also said that he plans to wait for the arbitration results and expects China to follow the ruling. This is contradictory to China’s position of not recognizing the arbitration. In a phone call with US President Obama before his inaguration, Duterte stated that he would continue the previous administration’s multilateral approach to the disputes, even including the United States, Japan and Australia. His openness to bilateral talks, he expounded, would depend on the failure or success of multilateral negotiations in a span of 2 to 3 years. Addressing China, he added, “You want to talk? OK. You want joint exploration? OK. You don’t claim it, and we won’t claim it.”

The imminent release of arbitration results on July 12 has made both China and the Philippines skittish. Despite his earlier statements, the Philippine president said that if the arbitration goes in favor of the Philippines, it will be a moral victory, although he acknowledges that it will also put the country in an awkward position. Duterte has also said that the Philippines is not prepared to go to war over the South China Sea, hence he wants to talk with China “after getting the copy of the arbitral judgment”. Duterte moreover said he would not “taunt or flaunt” a favorable ruling.

On July 6, China released a statement once again stressing that the arbitration is “illegal, null and void from the outset” and its hope that the Duterte administration will “veer away from the wrong path taken by the former government, return to the right track of having dialogue and consultation with China”. How the Duterte administration will use the arbitration as a leverage in its bilateral talks with China has yet to be seen. Read more…

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