Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s mixed messages and “wild swings” in policy-making on the thorny South China Sea issue have cost Manila opportunities to make headway over its territorial claims in the waterway during his five years in power, analysts say.
But Duterte, 76, who is due to leave office next year because the Philippine constitution limits the presidency to a single term, has been consistent in one regard, they say: Since entering the Malacañang Palace in June 2016, the president has brushed off calls for a more aggressive strategy against Beijing’s expansionism in the disputed sea by arguing that the Philippines could not risk going to war with the Asian superpower.
“Clearly, his handling of foreign policy is very personalistic and he thinks by being personally friendly and extolling personal friendships, he will be able to influence China’s behavior,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
“It doesn’t work that way, of course, because we’ve seen how despite five years of this style, China has not actually eased up on its activities in the West Philippine Sea, and it only gives China an advantage because the mixed messaging plays into China’s narratives,” Batongbacal told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Manila refers to its claimed portions of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte’s refrain since taking office that he “cannot go to war with China” started in 2016, the same year that a United Nations-backed tribunal invalidated Beijing’s claims to most of the sea. The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague supported Manila’s sovereign rights to its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
As president, Duterte’s relatively friendly rapport with China has marked a turnaround from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, whose hardline stance antagonized Beijing, especially when his administration took the South China Sea dispute to the arbitration court and won.
Although the arbitral award came with no policing powers to force Beijing into compliance, Duterte could have capitalized on it to shore up international support and advance Manila’s interests, according to observers.
In a televised address on May 5, Duterte described the ruling as “just a piece of paper” that he would “throw in the wastebasket.”
More lately, Duterte imposed a gag order on members of his cabinet on May 17, ordering them to stop making public statements on the maritime dispute, after his foreign secretary had aimed profanity-laced comments at Beijing about Chinese ships intruding in the Philippine EEZ.
During his presidency, Duterte, who once said that he “simply loves Xi Jinping,” has failed to restore Filipino fishermen’s full access to their traditional fishing grounds such as Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.
Chinese government and fishing ships have restricted Filipinos’ access to those waters, causing as much as an 80 percent decline in their fishing haul, according to a Philippine fishermen’s organization.
Meanwhile, Sino-Philippine plans to jointly drill the seabed for oil and natural gas are at a standstill. When the two countries signed an oil and gas exploration memorandum during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2018, anti-China protesters took to the streets of Metropolitan Manila, accusing Duterte of “selling out the Philippines to China.”
“I think the current administration was not able to protect our national interest here,” Rommel Jude Ong, a retired Philippine Navy admiral now affiliated with the Ateneo School of Government in Manila, told BenarNews.
Duterte’s stance “doesn’t look good from the point of view of us as a nation-state. It’s as if we’ve given up and succumbed to a sense of defeatism,” Ong said. “In other words, defeatism became a policy in this administration.”
In an effort to dispel public criticism over his South China Sea efforts, Duterte invited veteran politician and ex-Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile to his nationally broadcast weekly cabinet meeting on May 17.
That night, Enrile told the president to ignore his critics and that time would show the public that Duterte did right on the territorial issue.
“Our approach there should be friendly, not hard and aggressive,” Enrile told Duterte.
No unified voice
Tensions between the Philippines and China took a new turn in late March, when a task force led by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. reported the presence of more than 200 suspected Chinese militia ships at Whitsun Reef within the Philippine EEZ.
The report caused a diplomatic storm between Manila and Beijing, which denied that the ships were manned by militia and insisted the waters were within Chinese territory.
In April, the Department of Foreign Affairs began filing daily diplomatic protests over Beijing’s refusal to move the ships from those waters.
Early that month, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded that the Chinese ships leave at once. He said the Chinese ambassador, Huang Xilian, had “a lot of explaining to do” for the incident.
Later, Teodoro Locsin Jr., the foreign secretary, summoned Huang on April 13 over the ships’ “illegal lingering presence” in Philippine waters.
Also in April, the Chinese foreign ministry reiterated Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea.
“China enjoys sovereignty over the Nansha islands including Zhongye [Pag-asa] Island and Zhongsha islands including Huangyan Island [Scarborough Shoal] and their adjacent waters and exercises jurisdiction in relevant waters,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on April 26.
“We urge the relevant side to respect China’s sovereignty and rights and interests, and stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes.”
On May 11, Philippine presidential spokesman Harry Roque offered conciliatory remarks to Beijing, saying that critics were “making a big deal” about the Chinese ships. He claimed, erroneously, that Whitsun Reef lay beyond the Philippine EEZ.
When observers pointed to the apparent contradictions between Roque’s statement and those of the two secretaries, Lorenzana insisted that his comments reflected the president’s position. Locsin, for his part, had to apologize for an expletive-laden tweet directed at China over the issue of the Chinese ships massed in the EEZ.
As Duterte’s cabinet toned down the rhetoric on China following his gag order, Manila’s coast guard and fisheries bureau launched maritime exercises and patrols at Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys. Previously, the navy ordered more ships to patrol waters where the Chinese ships were spotted.
This marked a change in Duterte’s policy, because he had previously ordered the navy and the coast guard to refrain from patrolling waters where run-ins with Chinese ships could cause friction. He had also earlier ruled out joint maritime patrols with strategic allies.
The West Philippine Sea patrols are a welcome development, Batongbacal said, but while noting “lost opportunities” during Duterte’s term.
“It will not make up for the loss of credibility that we have suffered because of the wild swings in policy and it will not make up for the resources we lost in the last five years,” Batongbacal said.
Regional opportunity missed
Under Duterte, Manila has also missed an opportunity to unify the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) around the arbitral award, according to observers. Four of the ASEAN’s 10 member states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam – have claims in the South China Sea.
Indonesia, another ASEAN member, does not regard itself as a party to maritime disputes in the sea, but Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the waterway that overlap Jakarta’s EEZ.
Analysts said the governments could have banded together and used Manila’s arbitral award to strengthen demands that Beijing respect their claims under international maritime law. The ASEAN members would have benefitted from a more stable environment in the South China Sea, where more than $5 trillion in global trade passes through yearly.
Instead, when the Philippines held the bloc’s rotating chairmanship in 2017, Duterte pushed for gentler wording toward China in that year’s collective statement from ASEAN, despite protests from the Vietnamese delegation.
Whether it was deliberate or not, the more recent moves by Lorenzana and Locsin have somehow forced Duterte’s administration to toughen its stance against Beijing, especially because the public approved of what the secretaries did.
“If this is sustained, at best it can return the Philippines to its proper policy path of seeking and exercising its rights under international law,” Batongbacal said. “The fact that it’s all being done only now makes it a lot harder for the Philippines to do so.”
In June 2019, Duterte said he had forged an agreement with Xi to allow Chinese boats to fish in the waters of Reed Bank in the Philippine EEZ, in exchange for Beijing allowing Filipinos to fish at Scarborough Shoal.
At the time, Filipinos were in an uproar after a Chinese ship rammed a Philippine fishing boat anchored at Reed Bank, marooning the 22-man crew who were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen.
Last month, Roque denied that a fishing deal existed between Manila and Beijing. He made the statement in the face of public outrage over the suspected Chinese militia ships spotted at Whitsun Reef and other Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea.
Roque has not responded to BenarNews requests for comment.
The territorial dispute was far down the list of Filipinos’ immediate concerns even before the COVID-19 pandemic left people here preoccupied with health safety and economic survival concerns.
“Our basic problem is that the West Philippine Sea is not a bread-and-butter issue to the general public,” Ong told BenarNews. “But the West Philippine Sea has the potential to be a plus factor in our economy, if properly defended and protected, and if development projects come in properly.”
“Your tactics on the ground depend on the higher strategy. If the strategic direction is flawed or problematic, then that would just cascade down to the tactical level – problematic,” he said. “So what’s the strategic direction here? There’s nothing written, unlike in other countries that have it on white paper, for a specified term or administration. Ours is just verbalized.”
Although some documents at the cabinet level “more or less” articulate Duterte’s policies on the South China Sea, Ong said, they likely did not result from any exhaustive consultations with experts or other officials.
“It’s all based on internal discussion within the palace probably, and there was no attempt at consensus … basically we just got surprised there were pronouncements in the media. It appeared as though policies were written during open press conferences,” Ong said.
Visiting Forces Agreement
Duterte, in the meantime, has a decision to make that could have far-reaching consequences on the Philippines’ security: the fate of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States.
After ordering the pact repealed in February 2020 and setting off a six-month countdown for removing American troops from Philippine soil, Duterte extended the VFA until mid-2021, amid reports of an increased Chinese presence in the South China Sea.
Duterte has dangled the defense pact before the new Biden administration, demanding more U.S. donations of defense hardware and, more recently, COVID-19 vaccines from his country’s longtime ally and former colonizer.
Repealing the VFA would be in Beijing’s interests because it would deprive Washington of a strategic foothold in the Indo-Pacific, analysts and observers said. In addition, it would leave Manila vulnerable to foreign aggression.
Manila’s 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington ensures that its ally would come to its defense should it be attacked by a foreign aggressor in the Pacific, including the South China Sea. This, analysts say, is Manila’s ace card to deter any overt aggression from Beijing.
The VFA allows the U.S. military rotational access to Philippine territory, including to pre-position troops and assets. Scrapping it would hamper any activation of the MDT.
“Without the VFA, any assistance from the U.S. based on the MDT will have to come from somewhere else, maybe Guam or Japan, and that’s several days away,” Batongbacal said.
In 2019, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the Mutual Defense Treaty covered the South China Sea.
It was an assurance long sought by Manila, and which previous administrations had failed to exact from Washington.
Duterte’s supporters have cited such instances as evidence that his seemingly wayward hand in foreign policy belies a calculated, calibrated strategy – that there is a “method to his madness,” so to speak.
Ong and Batongbacal doubt it.
“It doesn’t have to be in such a way that I will communicate defeatism directed to an internal audience. There are ways of doing statecraft in such a way that does not demoralize the general public,” Ong said.
Conflicting statements have come from members of Duterte’s cabinet and from Duterte himself.
“All this is after the fact, when there was already confusion. That’s why I do not believe that it is a careful, calibrated and calculated policy,” Batongbacal told BenarNews.
“To me, it appears to be more improvised.”
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