Since assuming the Philippine presidency last June, Rodrigo Duterte has developed a reputation for making headlines with his off the cuff statements on foreign policy, especially as they relate to the United States and China (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s US-China Rebalance”).
On Tuesday, Duterte once again raised eyebrows and made headlines when told members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that he had asked China if it could patrol the waters near the Philippines to help the Southeast Asian state tackle transnational threats ranging from piracy to terrorism.
“And by the way, I also asked China if they can patrol the international waters without necessarily intruding into the territorial waters of countries,” Duterte said in remarks at an oath-taking ceremony of Philippine military officers at the presidential palace.
“We would we glad if we have their presence there,” he added. He clarified that these patrols could be done by Chinese coast guard vessels and noted the example of Beijing’s anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.
Duterte’s comments understandably triggered much head-scratching. To be sure, Manila does face some serious threats around its waters, particularly the one million square kilometer tri-border area in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas between the southern Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia. As I have detailed before, the area has become a hub for transnational organized crime and terrorist threats, with groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and others engaging in kidnappings, militancy, trafficking, and other illicit activities (See: “Confronting Threats in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas: Opportunities and Challenges”).
The threats have only been rising. This month, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) said in its annual report that the number of maritime kidnappings had hit a ten-year high last year, with the Sulu Sea specifically highlighted as an area of concern. And worries about growing links between the Islamic State (IS) and local militant groups in the Philippines have only grown, with Duterte, the first president to hail from the country’s south, joining a chorus of voices arguing that it could look to set up a caliphate in the region.
But it is also true that despite these challenges, maritime Southeast Asian states have traditionally dealt with them largely individually or among themselves rather than with extraregional actors. In addition to sensitivities because some of the surrounding waters are at the center of lingering interstate disputes – be it the Sabah issue between the Philippines and Malaysia or tensions in the South China Sea – there is also a suspicion among some countries about meddling by outside powers.
That’s partly why we have seen indigenous, interstate initiatives led by littoral states in recent years progress much more than those involving extraregional actors. The chief example here is the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP), a set of maritime and air patrols as well as intelligence sharing efforts undertaken by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand since the mid-2000s to crack down on piracy. But there is also the case of the nascent Sulu Sea trilateral patrols between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia which holds promise (See: “The Other Sea That Dominated the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue”). Duterte himself made a reference to these patrols in his remarks, revealing that he had just told a visiting special emissary from Indonesia to put the existing agreement into practice.
By contrast, efforts involving outside powers have often been discussed or carried out privately and publicly but have not gained as much steam. This is not just limited to China. As I have noted before, a case in point is the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI), a proposal launched during the George W. Bush administration which was initially meant to be a voluntary partnership between states to promote information-sharing and early warning to counter maritime transnational threats (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”). Media reports that the then-U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) chief Admiral Thomas Fargo had said that U.S. special forces and marines would patrol the Malacca Strait led to angry responses by both Malaysia and Indonesia, eventually leading to the initiative’s demise.
China has made several proposals of its own about how it intends to help Southeast Asian states contend with security threats, including patrols as well as exercises. Though these tend to be viewed as part of a zero-sum competition between the United States and China, Chinese interlocutors say they view such interactions as not only a way for Beijing to exert a growing security role in the region, but also to ease concerns about its maritime assertiveness (though it is precisely this assertiveness that can prevent these initiatives from taking off) (See: “Can China Reshape Asia’s Security Architecture?”).
Within the region, these Chinese proposals have been met with mixed feelings. That attests to the diversity of the subregion, the cautious approach that these countries take in calibrating their engagement with major powers while preserving their autonomy and security, and lingering anxieties about China’s rise more specifically.
This is not to say that some sort of maritime cooperation between Southeast Asian states and outside powers is impossible. Indeed, there is already some of this going on, even though they often do not make the headlines. For instance, last June, in the midst of the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue and in between the bilateral phases of the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercises that Washington does with the Malaysian and Philippine militaries, the U.S., Philippine, and Malaysian navies conducted a coordinated multilateral training activity in the Sulu Sea. The interaction, which had long been in the works, was a good example of how Washington could help facilitate existing cooperation already occurring between regional states in the Sulu Sea including the Philippines while also multilateralizing its own exercises.
The cancellation of CARAT Philippines under Duterte announced last year as well as his continued pursuit of diversification of Manila’s alignments away from Washington may make him wary of considering greater cooperation with the United States despite the fact that it is the more obvious choice, and may also account for why he is approaching China instead (See: “How Much Will Duterte Wreck the US-Philippines Alliance?”). But as has been the case with his predecessors, he could also have a change of heart further down the line as the Philippines’ relationships with both Beijing and Washington under new president Donald Trump evolve.
As for Duterte’s latest initiative for Chinese patrols, this could end up being the latest in a string of them that make the headlines but do not end up taking off at all. But if it does end up gaining steam, that will depend not just on what Duterte wants, but how the other neighboring states perceive this as well how Beijing responds in line with the capabilities it has as well as its willingness to do so.
Other countries will no doubt want to have a say in the extent to which external powers are patrolling their waters, which have already become a concern in China’s case with respect to the South China Sea in particular.
In the context of the China-Philippines relationship, this is all quite new. The Philippine military is used to turning to its longstanding ally the United States, as well as its allies and partners, for new opportunities in confronting challenges. Over the past few decades, China has been considered a security threat or challenge even as previous governments have engaged on other areas like economic and people-to-people ties, largely due to lingering disputes in the South China Sea.
Under Duterte, there is some nascent security cooperation underway, including between the two coast guards following the signing of an agreement during his visit to Beijing last October. But it is nowhere near the kind of collaboration or level of trust that would have paved the way for Chinese patrols of surrounding waters as Duterte called for.
Of course, that could all change. If it does, we will likely hear more specifics, including where and how these patrols occur as well as who they involve. As is often the case with new patrol proposals, whether or not they will materialize will depend on the specifics; precisely the kind missing from Duterte’s remarks this week.