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Philippines To Deploy Troops to Disputed Islands in South China Sea

Just what the dispute-riddled waterway needs is more troops claiming empty atolls.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his military to deploy troops to uninhabited islands in the disputed South China Sea in a significant policy shift widely seen as a challenge to China.

“It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied. What’s ours now, we claim it and make a strong point from there,” Duterte said. He took it a step further, pledging to personally raise his country’s flag on the Pag-Asa Island in the Spratly Islands archipelago on Philippines Independence Day, June 12.

“The unoccupied, which are ours, let’s live on it,” Duterte said, exuding his cavalier fashion that’s won him international notoriety. He gave his surprise announcement during a visit to a Philippines military base on Palawan.

Duterte’s remarks, if followed through, could lead to escalation in the region, though China has already opened the door to the militarization of the normally-uninhabited features with the construction of airfields, hangars, and air defense systems on islands that it claims. Moreover, Manila’s abrupt decision — just months after it ditched Washington and moved closer to Beijing — complicates an already tricky situation for the United States, which has sought to dissuade China from grabbing more land in the region but which does not want to spark a conflict. The Philippines is a longtime U.S. military ally.

China, in contravention of international law and a 2016 ruling from an international tribunal, lays claim to a huge chunk of the South China Sea, including plenty of the islets and atolls, man-made and otherwise. Several countries have conflicting claims over islands in the region, which is one of the world’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. The disputes have stoked years of geopolitical tensions between Beijing and its neighbors, many of whom are backed by the United States.

Last October, Duterte pledged to cut military and economic ties with the United States in favor of China, undermining Washington’s footing in the strategic region.

“I have separated from them so I will be dependent on you [China] for a long time but don’t worry we will also help,” he said in a rambling, expletive-filled 40-minute speech announcing the policy shift. He poured salt into the wound of the ailing U.S.-Philippines relationship, saying he’d also seek a new friendship with Russia. “I realign myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Duterte said. “There are three of us against the world. China, Philippines, Russia.”

The apparent 180 shift in policy in Manila came hours before a summit between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, prompting experts to question whether Duterte was clumsily attempting to play off Beijing and Washington against each other. Though the South China Sea disputes are not expected to play a big part in the Xi-Trump summit, U.S. officials said they will be on the agenda. Previously, the Trump administration had threatened China with a very tough line on its maritime expansion.

China and others in the neighborhood have developed some unorthodox ways to stake out their claims in the rough and tumble South China Sea. Beijing is building its own islands, much to the consternation of the United States, and then fortifying them with military installations, as well as ringing them with government-subsidized fishing craft as pickets. Indonesia is at loggerheads with Beijing over water around Indonesian-controlled Natuna islands, and Taiwan built military facilities on the disputed Taiping Island, drawing Beijing’s ire. The Philippines opted for an even cheaper, if odder, route, ramming one of its aging World War II-era transport ships into one shoal to claim the spot of land as its own. It constantly rotates crews through to the ship to maintain its claim.

In all, the Philippines claims nine of some 50 reefs and islands in the Spratly Islands, an archipelago at the eye of the geopolitical storm in the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all have competing claims in the region.

Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer