Red Dawn at Malacañang?: Duterte, China, and the South China Sea

To see the South China Sea tensions from where I sit, an emerging regional power is flexing its muscles by making increasingly bold gestures over dubious territorial claims. Those muscles were mainly flexed towards the Philippines, which until very recently had no way to push back. Military cooperation with the United States had frayed and the Armed Forces of the Philippines had deteriorated to the point that it had no functioning navy or air force. The Aquino administration wisely made course corrections on both fronts, though this hasn’t slowed or stopped Chinese adventurism. While it might prove toothless, his administration challenged the infamous ‘Nine Dash Line’ through UNCLOS arbitration. Judging by China’s reaction, it looks like the Philippines will win this case.

For many left-wing thinkers in the Philippines, the situation looks very different. America is still the empire it was when it colonized the Philippines more than a hundred years ago. It feels challenged by a rising China. Lacking other justifications or fronts to challenge China militarily, the US and their ‘puppets’ in Manila have been provoking China needlessly. America is itching for a fight, and the Philippines is a convenient vector for imperial ambitions. China is merely reacting to basing agreements, joint exercises, and so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ (FON) patrols. China is building island fortresses in the South China Sea because of endless 7th Fleet provocations.

It is impossible to know how many Filipinos hold this latter viewpoint. There are strong indications that President-elect Duterte is in this camp, though. If he is, then we should expect a significant u-turn on Philippine policy towards both America, China, and the South China Sea in the coming year. The evidence for this is sketchy, but the case looks like this:

Duterte hides behind nationalist bluster. During the debate, he promised to ride to the Spratley’s on a jet ski to plant a flag. Let them kill me, he said. Save our soldiers and sailors. Any confrontation would be a ‘bloodbath.’ It is impossible to predict exactly how his strategic retreat from the South China Sea would play out. Public opinion limits his options – it can’t look craven or weak.

What I expect is that a backroom deal has already been inked between Duterte and the Chinese embassy. As Duterte has hinted, China would offer development assistance in the form of infrastructure (and probably low-interest loans). The AIIB would start pumping billions of dollars into the country. In return, Duterte would begin turning his back on the United States. Future joint-exercises would be discontinued or scaled back. Fewer US Navy ships would dock, and US aircraft would be encouraged to park somewhere else.

My guess is that he would try to position himself as the great peacemaker. He would criticize US FON exercises and any further Chinese development in South China Sea islands – or perhaps only those that fall within Philippine claims. If efforts are well coordinated, maybe Duterte ‘saves’ the Scarborough Shoal from imminent reclamation with pre-agreed diplomatic maneuvers that allow both countries to save face.

It is unlikely that he would be able to relinquish Philippine territorial and EEZ claims. At best, he would get something like the mutually exclusive “One China” policy China has with Taiwan – a formal agreement to disagree on irreconcilable differences. This might be accompanied by “joint development” like Binay proposed. Maybe public opinion could be assuaged with a deal that makes the country a net energy exporter. Any move that stopped the Chinese navy and coast guard from continuing to harass fishermen would also likely be welcomed by many.

It would put the United States in an awkward position if Duterte to made a U-turn from the current administration’s policies by criticizing FON exercises. Even a relatively hawkish president like Clinton would find it difficult to continue aggressively challenging Chinese maritime claims if the counter-claimants began backing down from their position.

A diplomatic deal to resolve South China Sea tensions would be welcome. At the same time, I don’t think this is what most Philippine voters thought they were getting. It would also send China the wrong message: that it can ‘meddle in domestic affairs’ and bully neighbors into submission. A ‘united front’ of sorts has been building across Southeast Asia to stand against Chinese aggression. By installing a ‘fifth column’ in its weakest link, this front would disintegrate. China, ultimately, would get what it always wanted: a series of (unequal) one-to-one bilateral deals with individual South China Sea claimants.

One Comment

  1. The US is not going to allow the Philippines to make bilateral deals with China. It’s not going to happen and there are many , many strings they can pull to prevent it. If Duterte doesn’t go along, then he’s done. Plenty of skeletons in his closet.

    He’s a skilled politician so I would bet on him falling line. The strongman, death squad thing won’t bother Washington so much, in that case.

    Bottom line is , the Asian pivot is real and Washington is not going to let China rule the seas. And a Clinton admin is going to be on the hawkish side. If China doesn’t back down there will be war.

    May 24, 2016

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