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Duterte’s Pivot

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures to China could undermine US regional strategy

By NewsChina Updated Dec.28

Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, October 20, in Beijing / Photo by CNS

China rolled out the red carpet for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when he arrived in Beijing at the beginning of his state visit on October 18. During his four-day visit, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature.  

Calling the visit “historic,” China welcomed Duterte with a wreath-laying ceremony in Beijing, that was closely watched by observers after signs that the new Philippine leader intends to pursue a more independent foreign policy that deviates from the country’s traditional alliance with the US.  

Since taking office on June 30, Duterte has turned US-Philippine relations upside down. Not only has he criticized US President Barack Obama and EU leaders personally - and with crude language - for criticizing his crackdown on drug dealers and users, he has also repeatedly brought up the colonial-era atrocities committed by the US in the country, vowed not to join patrols with the US in the South China Sea, and threatened to stop joint military exercises with the US, and to drive US troops out of the south of the Philippines. 

During his visit to China, Duterte further escalated his anti-US rhetoric, saying that it was time to “say goodbye” to the US in a speech delivered at the Great Hall of the People to Filipino citizens living in Beijing, prior to his meeting with Xi. 

Questioning US economic power, Duterte said that the US has now “lost.” “How can you be the most powerful industrial country when you owe China and you are not paying it for almost 3 trillion dollars?” asked Duterte. 

In reference to the cultural connection between China and the Philippines, Duterte said he will “charter a new course” for the country’s foreign policy. “China has never invaded a piece of my country ... and what kept us from China was not our own making,” said the president. 

In a separate speech delivered after his apparently fruitful meeting with Xi, Duterte announced his “separation” from the US “militarily ... and economically also.” “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow, and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin,” he added.  

Duterte consistently avoided mentioning the South China Sea dispute, which had been a major obstacle in bilateral relations between the two countries. Under the administration of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the disputes escalated in 2012, when the Philippine Coast Guard attempted to detain Chinese fishermen operating in waters off the Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal), a major disputed area between the two countries. China reacted by sending its own naval vessels to the region, and has since established de facto control of the shoal and surrounding waters, keeping Philippine fishermen out of the region.  

The bilateral relationship further deteriorated when Manila lodged a case with the Permanent Court for Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in 2013, challenging China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. A court of the PCA delivered its ruling on the South China Sea case in July, which overwhelmingly favored Manila but was categorically rejected by China.  

Earlier, in 2014, the Philippines signed the ten-year Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US, allowing US forces to be deployed at five military bases in the Philippines on a rotational basis. The closer cooperation with the Philippines served as a major boost to Obama’s strategy of pivoting toward the Asia-Pacific.  

However, after assuming power, Duterte overthrew Aquino’s policy and has made it clear that he would not be opposed to putting aside the South China Sea disputes in order to seek economic benefits by improving the country’s relationship with the world’s second-largest economy.  

Duterte said in an interview with China’s state broadcaster China Central Television during his visit that implementation of the Hague ruling could lead to World War Three. “What good it would bring if it would only lead to war, but not prosperity?” said 
Duterte, “It is stupid [to insist on implementing the ruling].”  

Accompanied by more than 200 businesspeople, Duterte made it explicit that economic issues were the priority for his trip to China, as he sought to establish an “economic alliance” to solve his country’s economic problems. “If China would find in its heart to help us in our needs then we will remember it for all time,” Duterte said in his speech on October 19. 

Economic Focus 
Duterte’s focus on economics appears to have paid off, as the two countries signed 13 agreements covering various fields such as economy and trade, investment, industrial capacity, agriculture, tourism, drug control, infrastructure and maritime cooperation, which according to the Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, amount to US$13.5 billion.  

Moreover, China has outlined a range of promising initiatives for continued bilateral engagement. In a press conference, Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said that the Philippines would join China’s extensive One Belt, One Road initiative, and that China will increase its investment in Philippine infrastructure. 

As well as economic cooperation, the two countries tackled the South China Sea dispute. According to Hua Chunying, the two leaders “discussed cooperation in fishery in the South China Sea including bilateral cooperation on the fishing industry.” Hua added, “China is willing to make proper arrangements given the friendly relations between it and the Philippines.”  

Many analysts believe that Hua was referring to disputes involving Huangyan Island/Scarborough Shoal, though the official line from Chinese diplomats is that the issue was not discussed during the meeting. Prior to his visit to China, Duterte had said that he hoped China could allow Philippine fishermen access to the shoal.  

Wrapping up his trip to China, Duterte said he discussed the issue with Xi “in private” and, according to Philippine media, has left the issue with the Chinese authorities. Although the final joint statement does not mention anything about the disputed territory, many believe that it is possible that the two sides could reach a mutual understanding in the coming weeks to allow both Chinese and Philippine fishermen to fish the disputed waters.  

The joint statement adopts rather broad language on the South China Sea issue. Stating that “in addition to and without prejudice to other mechanisms, a bilateral consultation mechanism can be useful,” the two countries appear to have reached a middle ground for their two positions without making major compromises.  

While recognizing the importance of “universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the UN and the 1982 UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea” and “the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC),” the joint statement does not mention the PCA’s July ruling.  

The joint statement also states that the two sides agree to “address their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned,” a position in accordance with China’s “dual-track approach”- dealing with territorial disputes on a bilateral basis while negotiating a code of conduct to avoid confrontations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

The rapprochement of China and the Philippines has caused disappointment and bewilderment in the US and Japan. John Kirby, spokesperson for the US State Department, said the US was “baffled” by Duterte’s “separation” rhetoric and that the US will be “seeking an explanation of exactly what President Duterte meant.” 

Japan, which has been locked in a regional rivalry with China, is also confused and concerned about the Philippines’ charm offensive towards China. Over the past couple of years, Tokyo has been strengthening its military ties with the Philippines and has considered joining the potential joint South China Sea patrol led by the US.  

As Duterte is set to visit Japan on October 25-26, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said he would like to hear directly from Duterte regarding his comments during his upcoming visit. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also reported to be planning a private meeting to woo the Philippine leader.  

But while Duterte has become explicit in his desire to shift his country away from the US, there have been signs that the US is seeking alternative strategies. According to a report released by Fitch Group’s BMI Research on September 30 titled “Duterte’s Foreign Policy Shift to Undermine US’ Geopolitical Influence,” the US and Japan will be increasing their attempts to enlist Vietnam as a regional security partner in the South China Sea. 

The US fully lifted its arms embargo on Vietnam in May. In early October, two US warships docked at Da Nang port, symbolizing the return of US forces to the country for the first time since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Then on October 17, just one day before Duterte’s visit to China, Vietnam’s Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh said in a meeting with Cara Abercrombie, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, that Vietnam supports US “intervention” in the Asia-Pacific.  

On October 21, the very day Duterte wrapped up his China trip, the US sent its destroyer USS Decatur to waters off the Xisha/Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China established de facto control of the islands in 1974, after defeating the then South Vietnam in a naval skirmish. China followed up by declaring a territorial baseline around them in 1996.  

According to a statement from China’s Defense Ministry, the ship sailed within China’s territorial baseline around the islands and was confronted and expelled by two Chinese warships. Calling its operation “a provocative action,” the Ministry warned that if the US continues such operations, China will strengthen its patrols and defenses in the region.  
On the same day, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest confirmed that the USS Decatur carried out a freedom of navigation (FON) patrol in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, saying the US is defending FON rights on behalf of all states, “including China.” 

But after the visit, Philippine officials, including Duterte himself, were already walking back some of his language about “separation” from the US. Philippine-US military drills were scheduled to continue. Whatever the future of the relationship, the islands will play a major part in Sino-US tensions.