The Philippines is Still Balancing Against China Amid Duterte’s Pivot

Manila is still keeping its powder dry in terms of maritime security.

The Philippines is Still Balancing Against China Amid Duterte’s Pivot
Credit: Flickr/US Navy Photo

Since President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to Beijing last week, many analysts and observers have concluded that the Philippines have turned away from its traditional treaty ally, the United States and have totally embraced China. During the visit, Duterte announced his separation from the United States and declared that he had realigned with China as the two countries agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through bilateral negotiations. Immediately this event was seen as a big win for China and it will enable it to consolidate its growing political clout in East Asia.

The more recent actions by the Duterte Administration, however, indicate that despite its political alignment with China, the Philippines is still strengthening the capabilities of its coast guard and navy with the help of other major powers.

During his working visit in Japan, President Duterte discussed maritime security cooperation with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He also sought Japan’s assistance for the capacity-building and additional patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). At the same time, the Philippine government signed an agreement with South Korean shipbuilding company, Hyundai Heavy Industries, for the construction and delivery of two missile-equipped frigates for the Philippine Navy (PN). These actions are clear indicators that despite the détente in Philippine-China political/diplomatic relations and the establishment of what some might term an “economic alliance” between the Philippines and China, the Philippines is keeping its powder dry in terms of maritime security.

Building the PCG

During his three-day official visit to Japan, Duterte sought Japan’s support for joint ventures in key infrastructure development, especially in terms of harnessing Japanese expertise in developing high-quality and modern public transportation system. More significantly, he also engaged the prime minister in a discussion of greater politico-social and defense cooperation, particularly in maritime domain awareness and maritime security.

During his visit, he signed the Exchange of Notes on Japanese Official Development Assistance for the provision of two large-scale patrol vessels that were given aside from the ten patrol vessels that Tokyo is in the processing of delivering to the PCG. Japan’s provision of the two 90-meter patrol vessels will boost the capabilities of the PCG, since white ships are often used on the front line of the various territorial dispute in maritime East Asia, given that deployment of gray ships in disputed waters are seen as too provocative.

On 12 October, the PCG commissioned the first Multi-Role Response Vessel (MRRV) PCGS Tubbataha that will be used for patrol, search and rescue, and law-enforcement operation in the Philippine maritime territory. The remaining nine vessels will be delivered serially until 2018.  In the past few years, Japan has provided rescue equipment, training facilities, communication systems, maritime safety equipment, satellite-based communication system and Vessel Traffic Management System (VTMS) to the PCG.

Significantly, Japan has also started to provide the Philippines with military equipment and training. President Duterte also witnessed the signing of the Memorandum of Implement and Letter of Arrangement for the transfer of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF)’s training aircraft TC-90s maritime reconnaissance planes for the PN. Japan will also provide the training for PN aviators and will develop the infrastructures for these reconnaissance aircraft that will be patrolling the South China Sea. Interestingly, President Duterte also hinted that the Philippines could conduct naval exercises with Japan, but he repeated that there would no more joint exercises with the United States.

The most significant accomplishment of Duterte’s working visit to Japan was the two countries’ signing of the October 26, 2016 Japan-Philippine Joint Statement. The statement commits both countries to the maintenance of the freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea that holds the sea lanes vital for global economic activity and viability. The two leaders also reaffirmed the importance of the stronger (security) ties between Japan and the Philippines to promote the peace, stability and maritime security of the region.

Two Frigates for the Philippine Navy

While President Duterte was in Tokyo seeking assistance for the PCG, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana signed the Php15.7 (US$311 million) contract with South Korean Ambassador Kim Jai-Shin for the PN’s acquisition of its first missile-armed ships.

This is the first time that the Philippines is buying a brand new modern ship that is armed with surface-to-surface missiles.  The two frigates will have a length of 107 meters similar to the South Korea’s Incheon class frigates and will be armed with anti-aircraft missiles, torpedo, guns, and sensors for electronic warfare.

According to the official statement, the ships are tailor-made for the PN’s requirements as they will have relatively shallow draft that will enable them to get closer to the “islands which it would likely defend in the event conflict breaks out over these areas.” Hyundai Heavy Industries added the frigates will be diesel-powered and will be capable of traveling at 25 knots and can negotiate waves at the height of up to four meters.

The Duterte Administration’s acquisition of these two frigates is one of the biggest budget items of the 15-year AFP modernization program. This accounts for the 15 percent increase in the Philippine defense budget which aimed to enhance the AFP’s counter-terrorism efforts and enhance its territorial defense capabilities

Keeping the Powder Dry?

The Philippines’ efforts to build up the capacity of the PCG and to acquire two new warships for the PN underline its intent to strengthen its maritime capabilities while at the same time establishing a détente with its biggest maritime claimant state in the South China Sea dispute, China. During his visit to China a week ago, President Duterte tried to convince Chinese leaders to formally allow Filipino fisherman to return to Scarborough Shoal, a traditional fishing ground for fishermen. A possible fishing agreement between China and the Philippines, however, failed to materialize. There were reportedly disagreements over the terminology that would allow the Philippine fishermen to enter, which were tied to the arbitral tribunal ruling. And though fishermen have been allowed access to Scarborough for the time being, the future outlook remains uncertain.

Despite President Duterte’s and President Xi’s declaration that their countries’ long lasting friendship is unbreakable, the fact is that the two sides are still at odds over matters such as fishing rights and the tribunal ruling. The Philippines’ effort to keep its power dry is insurance against the possibility that this unbreakable friendship might actually be quite fragile. That is a point worth remembering even as one hears Duterte’s rhetoric.

 Renato Cruz De Castro is a professor in the International Studies Department, De La Salle University, Manila, and the holder of the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies.