Duterte Yields to Reality on South China Sea

Facing criticism at home over China stance, Philippines’ president asks for UN help

President Rodrigo Duterte’s September 23 appeal for international backing for the 2016 Court of Arbitration backing for the Philippines against China on South China Sea issues has surprised the world and delighted at least some of his critics at home – those more concerned with the sea than human rights issues.

It was an unusually subdued and even dignified Duterte who addressed the UN General Assembly by video and left many wondering why he had so apparently made a U-turn in his approach to China. This was the president who had, on elections in 2016, set aside the sea issue in pursuit of warmer relations with China and an influx of Chinese investment, public and private.

The importance of the speech was not just that he focused on Philippine claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which successfully challenged China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea. His appeal for its international support was both a signal to other littoral states contesting China’s encroachment on their islands, reefs and Exclusive Economic Zones, and a blunt rejection of China’s insistence that these issues be dealt with bilaterally.

Several reasons have been put forward for Duterte’s change of tack. Firstly, the policy of apparent appeasement was coming under increasing criticism at home including, and most importantly, from the senior military who prefer to see themselves defending the nation’s borders rather than focused mainly on internal security.

Duterte’s anti-US sentiments and rhetoric have been tolerated by a still supportive public opinion but nonetheless do not reflect popular sentiment, which remains generally pro-American, and has become increasingly anti-Chinese in the face not only of its South China Sea incursions but the influx of mainlanders for gaming companies and infrastructure projects.

The broader context is that the standing of Duterte’s government has been declining thanks to the combination of the economic costs of lockdown and its failure to keep Covid-19 numbers from rising to the highest level per capita in Asia. A huge corruption scandal at Phil Health, the national health insurance organization came to light in the middle of the Covid crisis and left questions about whether Duterte’s anti-corruption promises had ever been more than talk.

Duterte himself may have been disappointed that Chinese project promises have been slow to materialize and the offshore gaming boom was under threat from China itself, anxious to cut down on laundering of corrupt money and capital flight.

With jockeying already underway for elections in 18 months, currently fuelled by scrambles for pork from the budget now being drawn up, and beset with rumors about his health, Duterte may feel his power fading. Hence the appeal to an issue which has brought critics of his China policy to praise his words and is sure to be popular.

How seriously Philippine allies and neighbors take his shift remains to be seen. Follow-through is needed as littoral countries, notably Vietnam, have long chafed at the Philippines’ erratic course. The country had been almost the first, after Taiwan on Itu Aba, to occupy some of the Spratly group in 1970-71. It claimed those which lay closest to its coast and named them the Kalayaan islands.

But China, after attacks on Vietnam’s occupied reefs in the 1980s, was to move against the Philippines in 1995, not long after the expulsion of US bases. It began to impose itself within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), occupying Mischief (Panganiban) Reef. President Ramos had been loud in his criticism of China but no military response came.

Under President Arroyo, the Philippines switched to trying to do deals with China for hydrocarbon development within the EEZ. These put private profit goals of several politicians ahead of national interest but eventually, nothing came of them.

In 2012 Philippine lack of foresight and as well as ships, saw it easily pushed off Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, within its EEZ off Luzon. That critical loss could also be partly attributed to US vacillation and attempts to appease China, which was doubly surprising given that the shoal lies only 150 nautical miles from Subic Bay. But that defeat did lead President Aquino to take the sea issues to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the international body for Law of the Sea disputes.

Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia would all in principle welcome closer cooperation with the Philippines but remain wary of swings in policy due to individual interests and domestic politics which often prevail. The clownish tweeting of Foreign Secretary Locsin undermines its reputation as a serious partner and Locsin’s recent resurrection of the fatuous claim to Sabah has angered Malaysians and mystified other ASEAN members.

China is unlikely to respond vigorously, hoping that commercial interests, money politics and Duterte’s record of distaste for America will still prevail and that mainland Chinese interests, state ones in particular, will continue to find eager partners in key sectors in the Philippines. But it was a sign that China’s display of power and wealth is now generating more fear than greed in the region.

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