By Aie Balagtas See
The Philippines in 2020 signaled a stronger stance toward Beijing on the South China Sea as it drifted slowly back to the ambit of long-time ally the United States and other Southeast Asian nations pushed back on China’s expansive claims to the disputed waterway, analysts said.
After years of soft-pedaling on the South China Sea issue, President Rodrigo Duterte in September declared that a 2016 international arbitration court’s ruling in favor of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea was “beyond compromise.”
His comments jibed with diplomatic messaging in the preceding months from other nations with coasts on the South China Sea and governments from outside the region who are concerned about the growing assertiveness from China.
In the past year, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia have all submitted diplomatic notes to the United Nations, rejecting Beijing’s claims to “historic rights” over the South China Sea, as have the U.S., Australia, Britain, Germany and France.
“In 2020, as a result of Chinese behavior over the past four years, there has been a marked convergence of views by littoral states in support of UNCLOS and the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal. China has been left diplomatically isolated,” wrote Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, in a recent commentary.
UNCLOS stands for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which underpinned the ruling that Duterte referred to.
It’s in that diplomatic context that the Philippine president’s comments in September during the annual gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly – held virtually this year – might be viewed.
Since taking office in 2016, Duterte’s strategy has been to ingratiate himself with Beijing while not completely surrendering the Philippine position on the issue, according to political analyst Ramon Casiple of the Manila-based Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
In July 2017, Duterte had said he welcomed dialogue with Beijing about the waterway. That came two months after the president said that a war in the sea region would lead to “a massacre” of Filipino forces and “it will destroy everything.”
“As far as I know, even when President Rodrigo Duterte said that he would reach out to China, the Philippines had not actually changed its position in the South China Sea,” Casiple told BenarNews.
“We are upholding The Hague decision and … we are an ally of the United States. China knows that [but] it does not agree, of course,” he said, referring to Manila’s position on Washington and the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Still, Duterte has been soft on China’s intrusions in Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea since he assumed office in 2016.
He has praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, visited China five times and has rarely condemned attacks on Filipino fishermen, blamed on Chinese ships.
Observers should not “lump things together” by tying the country’s foreign policy with Duterte’s friendly statements about Beijing and strong comments against Washington, said Professor Herman Joseph Kraft of the University of the Philippines.
He said that while the president is the top diplomat, it is important to consider his administration’s other actions that affect geopolitical issues, such as the appointment of Teodoro Locsin Jr., a staunch supporter of the U.S., as foreign affairs secretary.
Duterte reiterating the ruling in The Hague does not point to a tougher stance against China, Kraft said.
“That was nothing different from his actions before. He has said that in the past. The only difference now is the frequency with which he is saying these things,” said Kraft, who believes that the president’s actions aren’t related to geopolitics.
“He focuses on domestic issues. He is not a geopolitics guy.”
Instead of taking Duterte’s words at face value, observers should ask, “How serious are his statements?” Kraft said.
‘Upper hand’ in dealing with US and China
The Duterte government continued with “institutional policies” that underscored the country’s alliance with the United States, Kraft said.
For instance, last week, the Philippine armed forces held a parade at sea – something that has not happened in years – showcasing 60 warships and aircraft off the coast of Bataan, which faces the South China Sea.
Much of the new equipment at the parade was acquired through defense assistance from allies, including the United States.
Earlier this month, the acting U.S. defense secretary visited Manila to press his government’s support for a free and open South China Sea and Indo Pacific.
Christopher Miller was the third senior Trump administration to visit the Philippines in recent months in a bid to boost freedom of navigation in the face of what the U.S. government sees as China’s increasing assertiveness.
In meetings with Philippine counterparts, Miller emphasized the importance of the U.S.-Philippine alliance to national and regional security, and discussed opportunities for greater bilateral security cooperation to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
In November, U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien reminded the Filipinos how Washington earlier this year had “formally aligned our position on the South China Sea with the arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling.”
These developments serve to highlight that Manila and Washington are firm allies, Kraft said, adding that that’s the way the Philippine military would like it to remain.
“He [Duterte] does not want to offend the Philippine military, which still remains a very pro U.S. institution. He wants to be sweet to the military,” Kraft said.
Kraft noted that Manila came close to ending the Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral pact that allowed U.S. forces to continue joint training in the Philippines.
However, in November, the Philippines gave itself another six months to decide whether to keep the key military pact intact because bilateral efforts have brought “the renewal of stability” in the South China Sea.
This about turn doesn’t necessarily mean the Philippines is siding with the U.S. or moving away from China, Kraft said.
“It only means that it wants the upper hand in terms of dealing with [both] China and the U.S.,” he said.
Meanwhile, Manila is taking a wait-and-watch position on a new administration in Washington come Jan. 20, Casiple said, adding that he did not expect a change in the traditional U.S.-Philippine alliance.