The fatal flaw in Duterte's China policy: Philippine Daily Inquirer Columnist

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the groundbreaking ceremony of a drug rehabilitation center in the province of Bukidnon on March 25, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures during the groundbreaking ceremony of a drug rehabilitation center in the province of Bukidnon on March 25, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

It is now increasingly evident that President Rodrigo Duterte's geopolitical tilt toward China, at the expense of the Philippines' vital ally America, is producing an undesirable side effect: destabilising the region and, eventually, the rest of the world.

MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Consider Japan's unprecedented move to send its largest warship, a helicopter carrier, to the South China Sea to participate in planned war games with United States and Indian forces. France is also reportedly sending an aircraft carrier to the potential flashpoint.

The Philippines' appeasement policy toward China comes with a very heavy price: Blatantly ignoring the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that its "nine-dash line" is illegal, China went on a spree, building military installations in the contested waters, thus violating the Philippines' independence and sovereign power over large chunks of its maritime domain.

The desire to please China, vassal-like, has also emboldened China to announce plans to build monitoring structures on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a mere 193 kilometres from Subic Bay. Equally threatening is the presence of Chinese surveying vessels in Benham Rise, off eastern Luzon, purportedly with the approval of Malacanang. That huge undersea landmass is recognised by the United Nations as an integral part of the Philippines' continental shelf.

Let's not be naive: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's threat during his recent visit to Seoul, that Washington is prepared to use pre-emptive nuclear strikes against North Korea, is also an undisguised warning to China to stop its aggressive illegal incursions in the region. Similarly, it is a "code" notice to government leaders taunting it that America's patience has run thin.

Why is China coveting our islands and why is our government seemingly careless, if not indifferent, when it comes to protecting our best interests?

From China's perspective, it all boils down to accidents of geography. Like Pakistan, the Philippines lies in the direct path of China's existential imperatives. That's why Beijing is willing to offer what America failed to extend: US$51 billion (S$71 billion) worth of soft loans and infrastructure projects to Islamabad and US$24 billion of similar goodies to Manila.

A quick look at a topographic map shows the importance of both countries to China's survival and global designs:

China is actually a narrow coastal state, far smaller than most people think. The bulk of its population, cities, industries, and ports are situated in that (only) verdant place in China: its eastern section, within 800 kilometres of the coasts. The rest of the country is hostile to life and material progress - from the towering mountain ranges of the Himalayas to the vast deserts and arid plains in the western and northern regions. Those places are natural barriers and deterrents to would-be invaders, as long as Beijing maintains order in restive Xinjiang and Tibet.

China's real vulnerability is along its soft eastern coastal side where eight of the world's busiest ports are located. That coastal vulnerability was exposed in the 19th century when rapacious Western powers repeatedly invaded the Middle Kingdom and submitted it to humiliating commercial conditions. The "opium war" of that infamous period tells it all.

Now, China is content not only to survive but also to dominate the global stage. How? By breaking out of the encirclement of powerful naval and other military forces that the US deployed around China after World War II to contain the spread of communism.

There are three important elements to China's regional and global game plan:

First, control of the "first island chain" extending from western Japan to Taiwan, the Philippines, parts of Borneo and the coasts of Vietnam. China's "nine-dash line" is the southern part of that arc. It is clear that China's construction of military installations on islands, atolls, and other features in the South China-Philippine Sea are intended to deny America and its allies control of those waters and choke points, through which US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually.

Second: control of the "second island chain" (eastern Japan to the Mariana islands, Guam, eastern Philippines and Indonesia). The late Admiral Liu Huaquing, known as "the father of the Chinese Navy," expected China to break out into the Pacific through that chain by 2020; by 2050 he envisioned China to be a true superpower and empire, just like America. It's small wonder Chinese vessels have been spotted mapping our Benham Rise waters.

Third: the ambitious China-Pakistan economic corridor that China is building, stretching from southern Xinjiang's torturous, terrorist-plagued mountains to the Pakistani port of Gwadar that will cut travel to the Middle East by 12,000 kilometres.

Once operational, that route, part of China's "One Belt, One Road" maritime strategy, is designed to kill two birds with one stone: perk up China's sputtering economy with new markets and prevent America from collapsing China's economy if, in the event of war, it decides to close the vital Malacca Strait.

The Philippine side is much simpler to explain: to extend a begging bowl to Beijing and beat our chest to proudly show off our modest economic gains.

The writer is an author and former diplomat.