Duterte and Xi talk war
Did Chinese President Xi Jinping threaten President Duterte with war? That’s what Mr. Duterte himself said, in an extraordinary disclosure last Friday. In his recounting, he said he had raised the possibility of the Philippines drilling for oil in those parts of its exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea that are contested by China. “I said, ‘Mr. Xi Jinping, I would insist that that is ours and I will drill oil there’.” He said Xi replied as follows: ‘We are friends. We do not want to quarrel with you…. We want to maintain the present warm relationship. But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war’.”
As we said: extraordinary. The following Monday, the country’s new chief diplomat, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, offered an “interpretation” of the exchange between Mr. Duterte and Xi at the recent summit in Beijing that did not directly run counter to the President’s recounting but sought only to blunt its impact.
“The context was not threatening each other, that we will go to war. The context is how do we stabilize the region and how do we prevent conflict.” Aware of the discrepancy between what he was saying and what the President said, Cayetano also said: “I will not contradict the President’s words. I am just telling you… my interpretation: There was no bullying or pushing around—it was not a threat.”
Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana also offered his own interpretation of the exchange: “No threats, no bullying, everything was frank but friendly, candid but productive.”
It is possible, of course, for a threat to be issued even as the discussion remains frank but friendly, but the pivotal question—at least for now—relates to President Duterte’s decision to put the threat to go to war in Xi’s own mouth.
Did Xi, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong himself, actually use phrasing which the interpreter translated into English as “we’ll go to war”? Neither Cayetano’s or Sta. Romana’s version denies that those words were used; indeed, if we parse diplomatic language as practiced by professional diplomats, “frank” and “candid” are usually employed to describe an honest airing of differences. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also did not issue a statement contradicting the President; spokesperson Hua Chunying merely sidestepped questions about Duterte’s recounting. So it is in fact possible that Xi did say those words. “But if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.”
But war is much broader than simple force. Did Xi say that Beijing would use military or Coast Guard action to stop any Philippine drilling operation in the disputed area? This can be done without having to recall envoys, sever diplomatic relations, or suspend partnership agreements—as a state of war would. Was this all that Xi meant? This is still a serious form of reprisal—in the exact same way that Chinese “fishing vessels” cut the exploration cables of a Vietnamese ship surveying another disputed part of the South China Sea in 2012—but falls short of war. Part of the reason why Beijing has increased its civilian Coast Guard is precisely to avoid getting the People’s Liberation Army’s Navy directly involved in South China Sea disputes. A threat of this nature, then, falls neatly into the pattern China has set in the last few years.
Or did the President make it all up? Did he claim that Xi said those words to justify his muted position on Philippine claims vis-a-vis China, or on the landmark arbitral tribunal ruling? A majority of the Philippine population remains distrustful of China, and supports an assertive position based on our history and the landmark ruling. In the President’s view, claiming that Xi said he’ll go to war paints him into a corner. “What more could I say?” he told his audience last Friday.
As a matter of fact, he could have told Xi many things, if indeed Xi had made a candid but productive threat: My administration will now fully embrace the arbitral ruling; we will deepen cooperation with Vietnam, other claimants and our traditional allies; not least, we will abandon this bilateral consultation mechanism you have insisted on.
For years Manila refused bilateral talks with Beijing on maritime issues precisely because of fears China would dominate it. What is Xi’s war threat if not unmistakable proof of domination?
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