South China Sea Disputes Are On Duterte’s China Agenda Ahead of Visit, But to What Ends?

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South China Sea Disputes Are On Duterte’s China Agenda Ahead of Visit, But to What Ends?

Can Duterte make China a workable offer concerning the South China Sea disputes?

South China Sea Disputes Are On Duterte’s China Agenda Ahead of Visit, But to What Ends?
Credit: NASA Public Domain image

Speaking on Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told an audience of local government officials that the country should not “dwell on Scarborough Shoal.” According to a translation of his Tagalog remarks posted by Rappler, Duterte said the Philippines should not dwell “because we don’t have the capabilities.” “Even if we express anger, it will just amount to nothing. We can’t back it up,” Duterte added.

Duterte is set for his first bout of extra-regional diplomacy since becoming president, with back-to-back trips to Beijing and Tokyo slated for later this month. As my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran has outlined in greater detail, Duterte has long signaled his government’s intent to walk a very different line on the country’s maritime disputes with China in the South China Sea.

Despite bombastic claims to personally plant the Philippine flag on a Chinese artificial island in the Spratly group during his campaign for the presidency earlier this year, Duterte has shown little interest in holding Beijing to the July 12 decision of a five-judge international legal tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled overwhelmingly and unanimously in Manila’s favor on maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.

Instead of emphasizing the ruling as binding and the basis for settling disputed maritime claims with China, Duterte has outlined his government’s intent to recalibrate the alliance with Washington and explore economic cooperation with Beijing. As I discussed last week, Duterte’s finance minister outlined the particular areas where Manila is looking to win funding and support from China. Accordingly, the Philippine president will head to China with trade and investment high on his agenda.

The South China Sea issue, however, hasn’t been entirely struck from the Philippines-China bilateral agenda under Duterte. Shortly after the tribunal’s award was released, Duterte dispatched former Philippine President Fidel Ramos to Hong Kong, where he traveled for an unofficial track-two meeting with Fu Ying, a former Chinese envoy to the Philippines, and Wu Shicun, the president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, in Hong Kong.

A press statement in the aftermath of that visiting produced a few ideas for managing tensions in the South China Sea by pursuing joint activities and cooperation in the South China Sea. Notably, however, none of the proposals were particularly ambitious and certainly did not include any sort of joint resource exploitation proposal.

Over the last week, Ramos has published multiple articles (one for Manila Bulletin and one shorter for Project Syndicate) critical of the contours of Duterte’s foreign policy. While Ramos supports bilateralism broadly and warns against conflict, which “would do serious damage to the interests of both the Philippines and China,” his recent writings on the matter don’t propose seeking China’s permission or even pursuing a joint resource exploitation agreement.

Indeed, part of the reason Duterte may be choosing to sideline the South China Sea issue — particularly the binding ruling by the PCA-based tribunal —  is plainly because Manila doesn’t have many middle-of-the-road options or concessions to offer Beijing that would not either concede maritime territory that was legally determined to belong to Manila as per the tribunal’s ruling or transgress constitutional requirements under Article XII, Section 2 of the Philippine constitution.

Moreover, though Duterte continues to enjoy high public support, the South China Sea dispute with China — specifically the continued inability of Filipino fishermen to freely access and fish at Scarborough Shoal — remains a hot button nationalist issue. Activist groups like Kalayaan Atin Ito and others have drawn attention to the Scarborough Shoal dispute in particular since the 2012 stand-off, when Beijing seized the feature from Manila. (I spoke to an American who traveled with Philippine activists to Scarborough on the podcast, in case you missed it.)

What is additionally concerning is other language Duterte used on Monday when discussing the South China Sea. Per Rappler‘s translation, Duterte noted that he would suggest that “they (China) should allow my brothers, Filipino fishermen, to return, then let’s talk.” Implicitly, this suggests that he may seek to pursue some sort of joint fishing or exploration agreement for either Scarborough Shoal or Reed Bank — thought to be rich in hydrocarbon deposits — despite the constitutional challenges this may pose. Asking China to “allow” Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough, however, suggests that the July 12 ruling won’t be the basis of Duterte’s request.

Moreover, mentioning the issue of Filipino fishermen demonstrates that Duterte is attuned to the primary issue driving nationalist sentiment over the South China Sea issue in the Philippines. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Duterte would choose to bring up the issue of Mischief Reef, which, per the tribunal’s ruling, was found to be on the Philippines continental shelf and is the site of a Chinese artificial island.

Finally, there simply might not be all that much worth taking away from Duterte’s remarks to local government officials on the South China Sea. Given the audience and the Philippine president’s tendency to speak off-the-cuff, little of what Duterte has said to date on the South China Sea may end up translating into actual policy. Still, China, no doubt, will be willing to make the most of Duterte’s seeming willingness to talk bilaterally and attempt to extract some concessions that will give it the best of both worlds.

Given the cancellation of his scheduled meeting with Obama in Vientiane, Laos, on the sidelines of the ASEAN summitry there, Duterte will meet his Chinese counterpart before formally meeting the leader of the country’s most important military ally. (Obama and Duterte were informally acquainted over dinner in Laos.) Washington will be closely watching his trip to China — particularly as far as the South China Sea issue is concerned.

As Steven Stashwick discussed in these pages shortly after the arbitral tribunal’s ruling, Duterte’s willingness to openly signal that he would be willing to bear no costs in the defense of Scarborough Shoal from Chinese aggression bodes poorly for U.S. interests. Washington has kept a close eye on Scarborough Shoal, watching for any Chinese intention to begin dredging for an artificial island there — a “red line” of sorts.

Duterte’s conciliatory bilateralism along with potential U.S. work behind-the-scenes may have maintained the post-2012 status quo at Scarborough Shoal, but Duterte’s signaling that Manila would allow a Chinese fait accompli at Scarborough may complicate the effectiveness of U.S. deterrence over the feature.

China, meanwhile, will be looking to maintain access for its fishermen in and around all areas disputed with the Philippines per its nine-dash line claim, which was ruled invalid by the tribunal. Above all, China will focus on the bigger picture opportunity presented by Duterte: an opening to pull Manila slowly but surely out of Washington’s orbit amid an openly anti-American president.