Duterte’s belligerence towards the US alters strategic environment, but China may not budge on South China Sea.
By Murray Hiebert*
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China for four days beginning October 18 in a strategic bet that he can patch up contentious relations with Beijing, seek economic aid while loosening longstanding ties with the United States. The results of the trip, during which he announced his “separation from the US,” will be closely monitored for signs of how serious the new president is about orienting the Philippines toward China and away from the United States, which would have an outsized impact on regional geopolitical dynamics and US efforts to rein in China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.
Relations between Manila and Beijing unraveled in 2012 when China seized fish-rich Scarborough Shoal, roughly 125 miles off the Philippine coast in the South China Sea. China’s move prompted the Philippines to bring a case against Beijing to an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague, causing China to react angrily. Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States in 2014 giving the US military increased access to five bases and providing the Philippines increased aid and training for maritime domain awareness. Stepped up engagement with Manila was a key plank in President Barack Obama’s rebalance to Asia.
Since taking office in June, the 71-year-old former mayor of Davao City has launched a bloody campaign against drugs, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,500 people. When the US government criticized his tactics, Duterte fought back with an outburst of profanities and told Washington to “go to hell.” He reminded the United States of massacres that took place in his home province of Mindanao in the early 1900s and raised questions about whether Washington could be relied on to help the Philippines if it were attacked.
In his first three months in office, Duterte has created uncertainty about Manila’s relations with Washington. US officials have kept a stiff upper lip through Duterte’s rants and said they support his efforts to ease tensions with China. “The prospect of the Philippines pulling out of a long stretch of tense relations with Beijing is a desirable one,” Daniel Russel, senior US diplomat for East Asia, told journalists before Duterte headed to Beijing.
A key motivator driving the Philippine president to mend fences with China is economic. He recognizes that the spat with Beijing has meant that the Philippines is missing out on China’s largesse. Duterte would like help developing the country’s overextended infrastructure, particularly railways in Mindanao and Luzon. He would also like loans to buy weapons for the Philippines’ military modernization program. The day before his visit, Duterte was quoted in state-run Xinhua news agency as criticizing Washington for its limited assistance and saying “only China can help us.”
China retaliated against Manila for bringing Beijing to the international tribunal by suspending banana and other agricultural exports and telling Chinese tourists to avoid the Philippines, at considerable cost to the country’s economy. Duterte, accompanied by more than 200 Philippine business leaders, would like Beijing to lift these restrictions. In a sign of potential aid to come, a Chinese tycoon is financing construction of a giant drug rehabilitation center near Manila.
During the election campaign, Duterte took a tough stance on the Philippine maritime dispute with China pledging to ride a jet ski to the Spratly Islands and plant the nation’s flag there. His bravado has eased since he took office. Before leaving for China, Duterte told journalists that he would ask Beijing to allow Filipino fishermen to resume fishing in Scarborough Shoal, but added that Philippine sovereignty over its claims in the South China Sea was not on the negotiating table.
Duterte has said repeatedly that the tribunal ruling must form the basis of any settlement of Philippine maritime disputes with China.
As Duterte arrived in Beijing, a Xinhua editorial said his visit would be a step toward overcoming years of estrangement between the two nations: “Should he demonstrate his good faith, the trip will present a long overdue opportunity for the two nations, which enjoy longstanding friendship, to heal the wounds of the past few years and steer their relationship back to the right course.” Duterte pointedly told Chinese media: “Maybe because I’m Chinese, and I believe in sincerity.” Press reports state his grandfather was Chinese.
During a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two leaders agreed to resume talks on the dispute in the South China Sea. Duterte said the day before the meeting that the July ruling by the international tribunal would take a “back seat.” The two sides agreed to set up a joint coast guard committee on maritime cooperation, and China pledged to provide aid for aquaculture and commercial fish processing. Beijing promised to provide preferential loans to finance infrastructure development such as railroads and roads, lifted an import ban on Philippine fruit, and said it would encourage Chinese tourists to visit the Philippines. The two countries signed some $13.5 billion in trade deals, Philippine officials said.
In the weeks before the trip, Duterte announced that he was suspending joint exercises and patrols with the United States in the South China Sea in an apparent signal that his goal of implementing a more “independent” foreign policy would result in distancing the country from Washington. Earlier Duterte had said he would ask the roughly 100 US forces providing counterterrorism assistance in attacking the Abu Sayyaf extremists in Mindanao to leave. Defense Secretary Dolfin Lorenzana said subsequently that this would be implemented once Filipino troops could fill this role.
Duterte said he would continue to honor the country’s existing treaties and military alliances, but was moving to limit cooperation with the United States to avoid antagonizing China. The defense secretary told journalists that the United States and the Philippines conduct nearly 30 joint exercises each year.
Duterte’s impromptu announcements have created considerable uncertainty about future of US engagement with the Philippines, a country with which Washington signed a mutual defense treaty in 1951. US officials say Manila has not yet officially informed Washington of any proposed changes to its relations with United States.
Many observers question whether Duterte’s expectations about what China will offer are realistic and point out that he could have reduced his leverage with Beijing by publicly insulting the United States. China has given no indication that it will agree to a bargain in which Manila would reduce defense ties with Washington in exchange for large-scale Chinese economic assistance and concessions on disputed territory.
Domestically, Duterte will likely face limits on how far he can go in improving ties with China or distancing the country from the United States. A poll conducted in late September showed that 76 percent of Filipinos surveyed had “much trust” in the United States despite Duterte’s anti-American outbursts, but only 22 percent felt the same about China.
Nonetheless, an anti-American protest calling for the withdrawal of US troops from the Philippines erupted outside the US Embassy in Manila during Duterte’s visit. About a dozen protestors were injured when a police van crashed into the crowd.
To be sure, the stunning rhetoric coming from Duterte has changed the strategic environment dramatically, but his actions must be monitored over the coming months to see whether the country’s foreign policy is adjusted significantly in the wake of Chinese pledges of assistance and cooperation. Duterte might abandon some joint exercises with the United States, but in the end, it’s unlikely that he will jettison ties with Washington when he has no certainty that discussions with China will result in significant concessions in the South China Sea.
*Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asian Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
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