Duterte’s Evolving South China Sea Policy

by Aileen Baviera / Maritime Issues / January 25, 2018

Presidential prerogative 
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has been criticized by some quarters as flip flopping with his foreign policy, particularly on how to manage the territorial and maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea.[1] This is causing confusion even among his domestic public, his country’s traditional allies, ASEAN neighbors, and – one can safely presume – China.
The  decisions to de-emphasize Manila’s legal victory from the UNCLOS arbitration and instead focus on improving bilateral economic relations with China, while scaling down defense cooperation with the US, are elements of the new “independent foreign policy” that Duterte prefers.[2] Some observers consider this as a 180-degree turn that is harmful to, if not a betrayal of, Philippine interests, in the wake of China’s over-zealous efforts to challenge Philippine claims and its recent fortification of islands with airstrips and other facilities for potential military use.  Others, however, would argue it to be merely corrective of the previous administration’s unbridled antagonism against China and unrealistic reliance on the US, as well as a pragmatic way to normalize ties with the rising power that China is.

Duterte’s accommodation of China’s interests in the South China Sea has been evident in his statements and actions: acceding to China’s preference for bilateral consultations (the first of which was held in May 2017 in Guiyang)[3]; not demanding compliance with the arbitration ruling (for now, he says)[4]; downplaying reference to the reclamation and militarization activities in ASEAN statements[5]; agreeing to resume talks on joint development of oil and gas resources[6]; declining to undertake joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea as Aquino had earlier agreed to[7]; and not filing formal diplomatic protests against new Chinese activity within the Philippines’ claimed areas[8]. He has also allowed cooperation between the Coast Guards of the two countries, and accepted a modest level of Chinese military support.[9]

This policy shift is being justified on several grounds, both short-term and strategic. Among the short-term goals are to attract Chinese investments and assistance (Manila secured $24 billion worth of deals during his October 2016 state visit alone), to restore normal fishing activities for those displaced by China’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal, and to hasten energy exploration in the disputed Reed Bank due to the near exhaustion of existing sources.  More strategic considerations involve the desire to preclude armed conflict with China given the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ relative weakness in the face of multiple internal and external threats, as well as the lack of credible assurances of support from its US ally.

History will be the judge of whether Duterte’s “China shift” will promote or undermine overall Philippine interests, but for now, tensions between the two countries have subsided and all-around cooperation is growing. The challenge the Philippines must successfully hurdle as a weak state is how to simultaneously neutralize China’s encroachments on its maritime entitlements while promoting a cooperative and beneficial economic relationship with China. At the regional level, the Philippines also shares with other states the goal of establishing a peaceful, prosperous, and rules-based order in the South China Sea that is free from coercion and threat.

With respect to the latter, the Duterte administration can make a difference, but only if it chooses to do so when the window of opportunity presents itself. Its highly institutionalized links with the United States (especially military-to-military), last year’s chairmanship of ASEAN, and successful reconciliation process with China provided advantageous conditions for the Philippines to help push forward conflict management efforts in the South China Sea. Some would argue that whatever moral high ground and political capital it enjoys arising from the recent arbitral tribunal victory, could also be leveraged to open up new compromise possibilities among the major parties. But it appears that the Duterte government is unwilling and unprepared to do so. Read more…

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