News analysis

Duterte's 'can't stop China' comment raises concern

Meek response a sore reminder of Mischief Reef incident

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a welcome ceremony in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. PHOTO: REUTERS

Just before he left for Myanmar on Sunday, President Rodrigo Duterte said, when asked about a news report that the Chinese are planning an environment monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, that "we cannot stop China from doing these things".

"We can't take on China. The Americans couldn't. They were too afraid. Now, (the Americans) want us to go to war (with China). It would be a massacre," he later told reporters in Naypyitaw.

His comments are a far cry from when he declared, when he was running for president in 2015, that he would ride a jet ski to Scarborough to plant the Philippine flag there. Later, shortly after he took office last June, he said that the remark was merely "hyperbole to stress a point that we will not give up anything there".

But now, with China pouring billions' worth of trade and investments into the Philippines, Mr Duterte seems to be singing a different tune, and it is not sitting well with pundits who see another "Mischief" episode unfolding.

In 1994 and 1995, China built a small structure on stilts over Mischief Reef, in the Spratlys chain of islands, shoals, reefs and rocks in the southern half of the South China Sea, just 217km from the coast of the Philippines' Palawan island. At the time, Beijing reassured Manila that the structure - a platform topped by four octagonal structures, with a Chinese flag waving overhead - was merely a fishermen's shelter.

Two decades later, that shelter has become an island fortress.

Mischief is one of seven reefs in the Spratlys that China has turned into islands to fortify its claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, which are being contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

The Mischief brouhaha is a reminder to the Philippines not to trust China, analysts say.

"All looks fine, except when one looks at China's actions in the Philippines' eastern and western waters," said Mr Richard Heydarian, a political analyst with De La Salle University.

Justice Antonio Carpio, the Philippines' top legal expert on the South China Sea disputes, said Mr Duterte has the constitutional obligation to defend it, even if he thinks his military is ill-equipped.

"Any statement that the Philippines cannot stop China from building on Scarborough Shoal actually encourages China to build on Scarborough Shoal," he said.

The judge added that Manila can always file a strong diplomatic protest. Mr Duterte could also send in his navy with a clear warning to Beijing that an attack will trigger a treaty that calls on the United States to come to the Philippines' aid.

More than any other feature in the South China Sea that the Philippines claims, Scarborough Shoal stirs up the most intense feelings among Filipinos, who refer to this large coral atoll as "Panatag" (calm), because of the way the Chinese moved on it. China seized control of the shoal from the Philippines in 2012. It has restricted access to it since then, barring Filipino fishermen from the area, often chasing them away with water cannon and helicopters.

There is also the matter of whether the US will let China build anything on Scarborough Shoal.

Turning it into an island will allow the Chinese to complete a "strategic triangle", along with bases on Woody Island in the Paracels near Vietnam and in the Spratlys, which will give it total control over the 3.2 million sq km South China Sea.

Said Mr Heydarian: "The key question at this point is: Does China think that because it is offering huge economic incentives, the Philippines is willing to go soft on its territorial claims and sovereign rights in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea?"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline Duterte's 'can't stop China' comment raises concern. Subscribe