Duterte and the South China Sea dispute | Inquirer Opinion

Duterte and the South China Sea dispute

12:06 AM July 13, 2016

Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated president of the Philippines on June 30. During the election campaign, he repeatedly made controversial comments encouraging the killing of criminals and seeming to disdain human rights. At one point he was tagged “the Donald Trump of the Philippines.”

Two trends—going against the establishment and nationalism—are spreading globally, becoming apparent not only in the United States but also in Europe, with the United Kingdom choosing to leave the European Union. Under President Duterte’s leadership, the foreign policy of the Philippines vis-a-vis China may also change significantly.


Over the past few years, China advocated dialogue and a peaceful settlement to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea; at the same time it steadily made incremental changes to the status quo, occupying the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and building artificial islands in the Spratlys. As a result, the Aquino administration abandoned dialogue with China over the territorial dispute and strengthened defense cooperation with Japan and the United States. It also instituted arbitral proceedings against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and sought a peaceful solution to the dispute under international law. The situation in the South China Sea will be greatly affected by whether this strategy will be maintained by the Duterte administration.

In one of the presidential debates before the May elections, Candidate Duterte said he would ride a jet ski to the nearest disputed island occupied by China and plant the Philippine flag. But President Duterte has since indicated his intention to shelve the territorial issue if this would mean receiving economic support from China. No doubt, China is working behind the scenes in various ways to strengthen relations with the Duterte camp. (This was written before the arbitral ruling was issued on July 12—Ed.) China will be able to gain complete military control on the nine-dash line only when it has a military base on Scarborough Shoal. The general view is that if the arbitral ruling regards China’s actions at Scarborough Shoal as illegal, China will begin land reclamation there to show that it does not accept the ruling. But China will probably prioritize winning over the Duterte administration and will delay land reclamation for a while.


Late in April, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter expressed strong concern over Chinese land reclamation at Scarborough Shoal and commented that it could lead to military conflict. But if the Philippines itself attaches importance to economic cooperation with China and compromises on the territorial issue, this will make it difficult for the United States to protect Scarborough Shoal and maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.

The future of the alliance between the United States and the Philippines is also unclear. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the stationing of foreign military bases, but the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) signed by the United States and the Aquino administration essentially paved the way for the return of US bases and a greater US military presence in the South China Sea, while stating that America would also contribute to the modernization of the Philippine military and the enhancement of its capabilities. Mr. Duterte is skeptical about the stationing of foreign military bases, but he is likely to accept the Edca for the time being.

After winning the election, Mr. Duterte did not follow the custom and chose first to meet China’s ambassador after Japan’s, and not the US ambassador. This may indicate his order of priority in terms of foreign policy. If his administration implements policies that disregard human rights, as publicly suggested, the US Congress cannot keep silent. If his administration chooses the path of appeasing China while overreacting to criticism from the US Congress and fueling nationalism and distrust of America, the US-PH alliance will likely enter a difficult period once again.

There is also the possibility that if Trump, who is skeptical about the alliance, becomes US president, the US-PH alliance will collapse. If this is how events will unfold, China will probably push forward with its plan of literally turning the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.

The South China Sea is a critical shipping lane for Japan, and Japan’s security and prosperity heavily rely on its stability. The Abe administration attaches importance to the concept of “open and stable seas,” and has appealed for solutions to maritime disputes based on international law. Luckily, Davao City, where Mr. Duterte was a longtime mayor, has a good relationship with Japan, and, after winning the election, he met first with the Japanese ambassador and expressed his intention to further strengthen relations with Japan.

With China repeatedly changing the status quo in the South China Sea, Japan must show the Duterte administration an alternative—which is the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea through the rule of law. Japan must also ask Mr. Duterte which is in the better interests of the Philippines and the region.

Tetsuo Kotani is a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.

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TAGS: arbitration, China, Maritime Dispute, Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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