Philippines’ Duterte Buckles to China

A submerged extinct volcanic ridge at least 3,000 meters underwater that is 350 km. east of the Philippines’ coast appears likely to be the next flashpoint between Manila and Beijing, at least partly because the Duterte administration is at sea over strategy.

On March 9, Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines Defense Secretary, told reporters that satellite photos and other information indicated that the Chinese had sent a research ship to the area, called Benham Rise or the Benham Plateau, a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau which is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf, and that he had given instructions to the Philippine Navy to “accost them and drive them away.”

What neither Lorenzana nor the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) knew was that President Rodrigo Duterte had informed the Chinese government well beforehand that they could enter the area, but didn’t tell his own officials.

That isn’t how things were done before – any country, including China, asked for permission first from the Department of Foreign Affairs before their research ships can ply Philippine waters.

Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, took part in inter-agency meetings which assessed the requests from the Chinese. The foreign affairs department organized the meetings, which was also participated in by the Department of National Defense (DND).

“China normally asks permission for research ships to pass through Philippine territory. I was in one or two inter-agency meetings before back in early 2000s,” he said in an interview with Asia Sentinel.

In the past, China has notified the Philippines before it even moved to renovate or repair some of the structures it built in a disputed territory – the Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. In October 1998, Ambassador Romualdo Ong said the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs “forewarned” him of the country’s plans to renovate the Mischief Reef structures.

The foreign affairs agency then crafted a position on the issue and protested the plan, saying China’s occupation of the reef, which China also claims and calls Meiji reef, impinges on Philippine territory.

In those instances, however, foreign affairs was told of the request, a factor now missing in the latest cause of diplomatic concern triggered by the presence of China’s research vessels in Benham Rise.

Neither the government bodies on foreign affairs nor defense had any idea of China’s research vessels’ plan to pass by Benham Rise in late 2016. Only Duterte was aware of it. Duterte, the Business Mirror reported, said there was “no incursion” because he and China had an agreement, adding he “invited” them to the “shores of the Philippines for a visit.”

Benham Rise, technically, is 350 nautical miles away from the Philippine shore. The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf granted the country’s territorial claim to it in 2012.

Foreign Affairs will only know of China’s plan after the fact. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, told local media that the foreign affairs secretary met with his Chinese counterpart in January and “had a friendly exchange of views to sort out the facts and properly address the issue.”

Perfecto Yasay was the foreign secretary during that time, a post he held from July-March 2017 when he was forced for not divulging he had held American citizenship. It was a period that saw the Philippines relations with China take a more amicable turn. Yasay’s interim successor, Manalo, had no idea what Yasay and Geng talked about.

But the buck doesn’t stop with Yasay – the liability falls on Duterte. Batongbacal said the President should have informed the foreign affairs department that China made such a request.

“Yes, he should have informed appropriate agencies, if he was aware that it had not gone through the usual process,” he said.

Duterte’s silence has resulted in confusion and apprehension over China’s real objective. It has also triggered doubts if Duterte also understands the difference between South China Sea and Benham Rise, which is in the Philippine Sea to the east of the country.

The president said that China was also claiming Benham Rise, when it’s not – only the Philippines has sovereign rights over it. “Because they are claiming it, so I can understand. You cannot also claim that because I'm claiming it. But let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time. Things are going great for my country,” he was quoted in local media.

This raises the question if Duterte really understood China’s request. What did he really allow China to do – was he aware of all the details of the passage in Benham Rise, or did he say yes to a blanket request for Chinese vessels to enter Philippine territory, including those areas which are also being claimed by China in South China Sea?

“It appears that he was asked only for permission to let the vessel through Philippine territory. He may not have been that particularly conscious of the details or destination,” Batongbacal observed.

These questions would have been answered if the request had gone through the assessment of the inter-agency group. All the specifics would have been threshed out and no one would have been left in the dark.

Defense certainly knew nothing about it. Consequently, Lorenzana does not believe that China’s navigation in Benham Rise is an innocent passage. The defense czar said that China’s vessels looked like they did not just pass by Benham Rise because they were monitored for three months in the area. He raised that China may be looking for submarine lanes.

China denied this and said that they were merely passing through Benham Rise as part of their freedom of navigation, which the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea allows.

The problem is that China’s track record is replete with what the Philippines considers as acts violative of its sovereignty in South China Sea. These include reported military installations in Scarborough shoal and detention of fishermen in disputed waters, the usual flashpoints of tension between the Philippines and China.

These incidents have caused the general Filipino public to distrust China. Even if there’s been a change in the Filipinos’ overall perception about the country – China’s net trust rating improved from -33 in October to +9 in December 2016 – that trust is fragile.

Duterte tried to quell everyone’s fears that he is giving China a free hand to do anything it wants in Benham Rise – an area seen as a potential source for natural gas – by asking the Philippine coastguard and navy to conduct more patrols in the area.

Just a few days after he said this, however, he told reporters the Philippines cannot stop China if it will build structures in Scarborough shoal. If he has information about such potential actions, a host of critics say, he should tell the DFA pronto and remember that once upon a time, DFA knew things like this, for good reason - that reason being that the Philippines just cannot give up what the law says is theirs.