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S.E.A. View

Duterte's China gamble a shift in policy

From being a China hawk in South-east Asia, the Philippines under new President Rodrigo Duterte is extending an olive branch to Beijing. But can this diplomatic gambit change anti-Chinese sentiments, or last?

In a span of months, the Philippines has rapidly transformed from the leading China hawk in South-east Asia into one of the most proactive proponents of constructive engagement with the Asian juggernaut. Surprisingly, the palpable shift in the Philippines' diplomatic tone has arrived at a curious juncture.

A month earlier, China suffered a huge legal setback at The Hague when an arbitral tribunal, formed under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), nullified the bulk of Beijing's "historic rights" claims across the South China Sea while unequivocally censuring its massive island-building activities in the area.

Meanwhile, the Philippines just inaugurated a new administration, led by the tough-talking and controversial President Rodrigo Duterte. Yet, instead of leveraging the arbitration verdict to confront China, which occupies several Philippine-claimed land features, the new Filipino President seems to be more than willing to settle disputes on a bilateral basis.

The Duterte administration isn't only interested in rebuilding frayed ties with China, which has dangled large-scale infrastructure investments among other incentives, but is also calling for a more independent Philippine foreign policy which is less reliant on the United States.

Shortly after securing a landslide victory in the presidential election, Mr Duterte declared: "I will be charting a (new) course (for the Philippines) on its own and will not be dependent on the United States."

Given the depth of ties between the two allies, dating back to the colonial period, it was a bold and risky policy statement.

President Duterte's administration is not only interested in rebuilding frayed ties with China, which has dangled large-scale infrastructure investments among other incentives, but is also calling for a more independent Philippine foreign policy whic
President Duterte's administration is not only interested in rebuilding frayed ties with China, which has dangled large-scale infrastructure investments among other incentives, but is also calling for a more independent Philippine foreign policy which is less reliant on the United States. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Earlier, during the campaign period, Mr Duterte broke a long-held diplomatic taboo by accusing US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, who criticised some of his controversial remarks, of interfering in Philippine domestic affairs. He went so far as to tell the US envoy, along with his Australian counterpart, to "shut their mouths".

Even though he reiterated his commitment to maintain the existing security agreement with Washington, he did not hesitate to signal stricter regulations on the movement of US military personnel on Philippine soil.

"They (US military) could not use any other place (in the Philippines) without the knowledge or until there is advice from the (Philippine) Armed Forces," Mr Duterte, a self-described "socialist" with long-held ties with local communists, cautioned Washington.

Worried about the direction of bilateral ties as well as the authoritarian tendencies of the new Filipino leader, US President Barack Obama was the first head of state to call and congratulate Mr Duterte on his election victory. Over the following weeks, the US' most senior diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and State Department counsellor Kristie Kenney, also visited Manila to ensure relations will remain on the same warm and cordial footing.

Despite relishing the US' diplomatic courtship, Mr Duterte still could not help himself and made insulting remarks against the US ambassador. He also questioned the US commitment to defend the Philippines against external threats. The message was clear: Relations with Washington will remain robust, but not as sacrosanct and special as before.

When it comes to China, however, Mr Duterte has extended the olive branch, emphasising the necessity of avoiding confrontation and pursuing closer ties. Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay has expressed his country's interest in "close friendship" with Beijing.

The Duterte administration has consciously pushed back against calls at home and among traditional allies to use The Hague verdict to diplomatically confront China and invite international military intervention to enforce the verdict in the South China Sea.

To reopen communication channels with Beijing, Mr Duterte deputised one of his foremost advisers and friends, former president Fidel Ramos - who deftly dealt with the South China Sea disputes in the mid-1990s - as special envoy to China.

After a five-day "ice breaker" meeting in Hong Kong with senior Chinese officials and academics, Mr Ramos received an invitation for further talks in Beijing. Mr Duterte is also set to meet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the Asean summit next month.

Mr Duterte has promised not to bring up the South China Sea issue at the regional summit, essentially de-multilateralising the disputes. That is significant as China has all along made clear its preference for negotiations on a bilateral basis. In fact, it is likely that Mr Duterte will choose China for his first major state visit in order to explore more lasting measures to manage, if not resolve, maritime disputes in the area.

Instead of leveraging the arbitration verdict to confront China, which occupies several Philippine-claimed land features, the new Filipino President seems to be more than willing to settle disputes on a bilateral basis.

Though substantive negotiations over the South China Sea disputes are yet to commence, the Duterte administration seems to be interested in exploring joint development schemes in places such as the contested Scarborough Shoal, which is currently controlled by China and has been declared by the arbitral tribunal in The Hague as a traditional fishing ground belonging to no specific country.

Given Mr Duterte's "super-majority" support in the Philippine Congress, he might be able to amend strict restrictions in the Constitution on joint development agreements with other sovereign states in Philippine-claimed waters.

In exchange for de-multilateralising the disputes and adopting a "keep it quiet" position on the Unclos ruling, the Philippines is likely to also ask China to shun any further coercive measures against Filipino troops, fishermen and personnel in the Spratly chain of islands.

As a sweetener, China has also offered big-ticket projects to upgrade the Philippines' decrepit infrastructure. Nevertheless, the warm rhetoric and initial signs of thaw in bilateral relations could end up as nothing but a temporary diplomatic mirage.

Anti-China sentiments in the Philippines are at a historic high, and it is far from clear whether the Duterte administration can achieve any mutually satisfactory agreement in the South China Sea, given China's intransigence on its excessive maritime claims in the area. And this is precisely why Mr Duterte has to hedge his bets and cannot afford to fully alienate traditional allies like the US, which is intent on constraining Chinese maritime assertiveness in Asia.

•The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines, and the author of Asia's New Battlefield: US, China And The Struggle For Western Pacific. This article is based on the author's August 23 presentation at the Iseas- Yusof Ishak Institute.

•S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte's China gamble a shift in policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe