President Duterte had been criticized for appearing soft in defending Philippine national interests in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), especially in the face of his decision to expand cooperation with a fellow disputant and potential external security threat. Such criticism largely rests on two key assumptions: 1) that asserting the country’s landmark victory in the 2016 arbitration decision is the best way to defend the country’s WPS interests and canvassing regional and international support is the best way to pressure China into compliance and; 2) maintaining robust or even deepening security relations with the US is the best deterrence against Chinese expansionism in the tightly contested strategic and resource-rich sea..

Duterte’s misgivings about the two aforementioned assumptions can be attributed to the following observations: 1) that other claimant states, notably Malaysia, and even Vietnam and Indonesia (China’s excessive nine dash line claim overlaps with Indonesia’s Natuna Islands’ exclusive economic zone) were able to manage their disputes with China through diplomacy without resorting to arbitration or other third party legal approaches; 2) China’s rise as a regional and global development partner and provider of economic goods will make such international pressure to compel China to submit unlikely to prosper and 3) that South China Sea (SCS) does not appear high in US foreign policy and that US security commitment to regional allies may waver or become unreliable under the Trump Administration.

Turning challenges into opportunities

In light of this, Duterte decided to approach delicate and sensitive territorial and maritime issues with neighbors through direct bilateral talks with the biggest claimant China and engaging the region through ASEAN, especially as the country plays Chair to this enduring regional association in its historic 50th year founding anniversary. Incidents involving Chinese fishing and maritime law enforcement vessels in waters considered by Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam as theirs were managed through appropriate diplomatic channels and seldom were they allowed to graduate into crisis proportion. Even the intense 2014 oil rig incident between Vietnam and China that sparked nationwide protests and rioting was defused through negotiations and diplomacy. Despite the unresolved territorial and maritime disputes, other SCS littoral states notably Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia are able to: 1) extract resources, notably fisheries and offshore oil and gas, in the contested sea with little external interference, although China’s recent bolstered military presence in SCS may begin to impact on this, and; 2) have productive and even expanding economic relations with China. Thus, the presence of disputes per se does not obstruct economic activity in the sea and does not hinder development of mutually beneficial economic ties between and among claimant states as blossoming intra-ASEAN and ASEAN-China trade would suggest. Hence, the shift in emphasis from dispute resolution to dispute management is gaining regional support and acceptance.

Southeast Asia-China cooperation is also making headway in recent years. Examples include China mil-to-mil exercises with Thailand (Blue Sky 2015; Blue Strike 2016), Malaysia (Peace and Friendship 2014-16) and Indonesia (Sharp Knife 2011-14), not to mention purchase of defense equipment and vessels from China by these countries. Thus, while Duterte’s interest to engage non-traditional security partners like China is generating a lot of domestic and regional attention, with some expressing criticisms, the country’s neighbors had already commenced engaging China in the security domain much earlier. Maritime piracy and the use of sea travel by criminal and terror groups along porous maritime borders may create natural confluence for cooperation between neighbors and the participation of new maritime security partners can complement or support such initiatives. This may explain his unprecedented proposal for joint patrols with China in the Sulu Sea. Seen from this vantage point, Duterte is no trailblazer in opening potential security ties with China.

US: wavering, unreliable

President Trump’s more transactional rather than values-based foreign policy, the seemingly lesser importance he attaches to regional security alliances, and his unclear Asian policy, except perhaps on the issue of North Korea, all create uncertainties that compel regional states to calibrate and have a more realistic expectation of what US may or may not deliver for the region. America’s Europe First policy during World War II, which meant focusing resources to liberate Europe first before liberating its Asian colony, reflect US historical regard for the country. In addition, despite strong rhetoric in support of the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, other states from distant theaters, such as Pakistan, Egypt and Jordan, in fact got more US military aid than a Mutual Defense Treaty ally like the Philippines. This can best be exemplified by the transfer of vintage decommissioned and de-weaponized US Coast Guard cutters at a time when the country faces increasing maritime challenges. US failure to broker a simultaneous withdrawal of Philippine and Chinese maritime law enforcement ships from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in 2012 and its inability to halt China’s artificial island building in SCS despite its much-publicized freedom of navigation operations contributed to the erosion of America’s image as a provider of security goods for the region, especially to its allies. Hence, Duterte’s remarks to the effect that the US has lost its leadership has some considerable basis. If it is any indication, Trump’s choice of the first countries to visit as President suggests where US foreign policy priority still lies – Middle East and Europe. While US Defense Secretary Mattis’ reassuring words at the last Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore brought some sense of relief to Southeast Asia, there is still no substitute to hearing similarly strong remarks (such as Obama’s “ironclad commitment”) from America’s Commander-in-Chief.

Managing disputes to ensure stable relations

The SCS dispute has long been an irritant in Philippines-China relations. It made security the overriding aspect dictating the tone of bilateral relations and under-emphasizing economic relations. However, the experience of its ASEAN neighbors, including fellow SCS claimants, suggest to the Philippines that this need not be the case. Astute conflict management, through bilateral and regional (e.g. ASEAN-China) tracks, can ensure that territorial and maritime disputes do not become the driver in the relations. To this end, the establishment of a biannual Philippines-China Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on SCS, the first meeting of which was held in Guiyang, China in May 19, 2017, was a positive development. A Memorandum on the Establishment of Joint Coast Guard Committee on Maritime Cooperation was one of the 13 cooperation documents signed by Philippines and China during Duterte’s 2016 state visit to Beijing, demonstrating the great importance attached by both sides to developing appropriate mechanisms to handle disputes. The inaugural meeting of this Joint Coast Guard Committee was held in Subic last February 20-22, 2017. Proper handling of disputes will allow other aspects of the broad and comprehensive relations to grow. Duterte must have thought that Philippines may just become a bargaining chip in any great power discussion on the SCS, so he is taking it upon himself to discuss directly with a fellow disputant in order to make his country’s position and interests clear and obtain greater direct concessions reached through compromise.

The billion dollar investments and loans, increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting the country, and increasing market access for Philippine agricultural exports to China all show the immediate effect of improved political relations and proper handling of disputes. China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its financing vehicles (e.g. Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Silk Road Fund, other Chinese policy banks) which is gaining much traction in Eurasia and Africa can tremendously support government efforts to upgrade and rebuild Philippine infrastructure. Duterte’s attendance in the recently concluded Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which was attended by about 30 heads of state and hundreds of government officials, experts and media from participating countries (including delegations from US, Japan, Republic of Korea) suggest where his priorities lie in terms of foreign policy – pursuit of national economic interests. Towards this end, he puts greater emphasis on able dispute management to ensure that differences do not stand in the way of expanding constructive relations and principled cooperation.

Beyond the rhetoric, Duterte’s policy on handling territorial and maritime disputes, notably with China, reflects elements employed by other claimant states and that his overall approach to China, namely keeping disputes low key and expanding economic ties, resonate with emerging regional behavior. Nonetheless, security relations with US remain relatively firm despite rhetoric against it and this goes in line with regional desire to keep US and other significant players engaged, though America’s policies towards maritime Asia under Trump may now be the wildcard that littoral states will have to calibrate. In sum, the convergence of domestic economic interests and emerging regional response towards China is shaping Duterte’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the new elephant in the room. As long as there will be no fundamental change in the equation, he will likely see no value in changing this tack.


*All commentaries published on the APPFI website are based on personal views of the authors and contributors, and do not necessarily reflect positions of the Foundation or individuals associated with it.