Duterte Will Fight Anyone but Beijing

The Philippine president is curiously willing to put China’s interests over his country’s.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug. 30, 2019.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shake hands during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug. 30, 2019. How Hwee Young-Pool/Getty Images

In late July, during a typically blusterous State of the Nation address, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took a detour from his prepared remarks and addressed the country’s ongoing dispute with China over various landmarks in the South China Sea. There was nothing to be done, he observed. “China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it. So it’s as simple as that. They are in possession of the property.” It seemed almost as if Duterte, never modest, was ready to pat himself on the back for his own national self-abnegation. The Chinese government did. After all, though it may have gone against Philippine interests, Duterte has played a significant role in ensuring China maintained possession of the disputed areas.

This turn of events could not have been predicted by the casual observer of Asian politics upon Duterte’s election, four years ago. During his election campaign, Duterte boasted he would stand up to China by personally riding a water scooter to one of the disputed locations and planting the Philippine flag. As spring turned to summer in 2016, many regional observers expected a confrontation in the South China Sea. China had gone on a building spree in the South China Sea, converting rocks into airstrips and reefs into solid land. The Permanent Court of Arbitration was concluding a multiyear investigation into a 2013 case brought by the Philippines regarding Chinese claims in the South China Sea. The administration of then U.S. President Barack Obama cajoled allies across the world to speak out against China’s expansionist claims and defend the Permanent Court of Arbitration against Chinese criticism. Despite Chinese pressure to toe the line, far more countries publicly supported the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling than opposed it.

But when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China in July 2016, just weeks after Duterte took office, he did not brandish the ruling on his promised water scooter. He did not visit any disputed areas. In fact, he avoided discussion of the issue altogether. When he visited Beijing, he made the change in allegiance clear. Addressing Chinese officials in the Great Hall of the People as “your honors,” he declared his “separation from the United States,” going so far as to boldly state “America has lost.”

The South China Sea is of immense strategic and geoeconomic importance. About one-fifth of global trade passes through it. The oil and gas resources beneath it are valued by conservative estimates in the trillions of dollars. Claims to those resources depend, legally, on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea’s establishment of exclusive economic zones, which lie within 200 nautical miles from any country’s land. But the many rocks, reefs, sandbars, and islands in the South China Sea provide far more than the basis for claims and disputes about natural resources.

If the sea is fully militarized, it will provide China opportunities for power projection across the heavily populated region. Institutions such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration provide a fair assessment of the historical merits of claims. China’s shockingly expansive claims were found to be without any basis in history or international law. But any attempts to enforce the court’s rulings inevitably fall apart before Chinese assertiveness when leaders such as Duterte are not even willing to diplomatically advance their own countries’ claims.

Despite the fact that few of the infrastructure projects pledged by China during Duterte’s visits have materialized, Duterte’s loyalty has not wavered. The president recently banned the Philippine Navy from participating in exercises with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, an escalation from his previous request that the participation of the Philippine Navy in joint exercises not be covered in the media. Ever since his election, Duterte has repeatedly pushed the issue of the South China Sea to the diplomatic back burner.

Duterte’s actions have cut against the grain of the political culture of the Philippines, especially with regard to foreign affairs. Despite the legacy of 48 years of colonial rule by the Americans, relations with the United States have remained warm both diplomatically and culturally. Despite the actions of Duterte, Filipinos’ net trust in the United States remains high, while net trust in China has not only stayed low but deteriorated.

Some analysts have suggested that this is merely the natural behavior of a nation-state pursuing its interests within its regional context of the international system. With China closer geographically and on the rise economically and militarily, it is sensible, they argue, for smaller countries such as the Philippines to jump on the bandwagon to maintain, or even increase, their own power. Others, such as Mark Bryan Manantan, have argued that Duterte is cleverly playing the superpowers against one another to gain concessions, financial and otherwise, from each in turn.

No doubt there is some truth to each of these arguments. There are other explanations as well, however. Despite his popularity, Duterte may be in a bind. Duterte admitted in 2016 that some of his political advertising was paid for by Chinese donors. In fact, before his presidential campaign even began, his very first campaign ads were purchased directly with television stations by an anonymous Chinese donor.

In last month’s State of the Nation address, he made a curious comment. Battling China would be costly, he said. “I cannot afford it, maybe other presidents can, but I cannot.” The situation of the Philippines in the South China Sea was fraught long before Duterte came to power. What Duterte meant by other presidents being able to “afford” war with China is unclear. Nevertheless, given his links with wealthy Chinese individuals and the deference he has shown to China as a state, it is certainly possible that Duterte’s financial connections with China go beyond some campaign ads several years ago. Transnational corruption has afflicted many other democracies of late.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s signature policy—his extralegal killings and violence against suspected drug dealers and users—requires the compliance of the military and national security community. However, this community generally remains far more skeptical of Chinese intentions than Duterte himself appears to be. Duterte has placed himself in some degree of dependency on these conflicting interests—Chinese beneficence and state organs suspicious of Chinese expansionism. This may explain why his general trend of toadying to Beijing is occasionally broken by jagged, fleeting reversals.

The extent of Duterte’s connections to China may not be clear while he remains in power. His crackdown on the opposition and the press has been fierce. But the degree to which he’s willing to sell out his own country’s national interests, against the will of the public, may point toward an unpalatable truth.

Michael Rowand is a writer specializing in international affairs and Director of Development at Africa ASAP.

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