Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Second Thoughts?: Duterte and the South China Sea
Second Thoughts?: Duterte and the South China Sea

Second Thoughts?: Duterte and the South China Sea

In August 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte did something unusual: he publicly criticized China. He asserted that China did not have the right to drive away aircraft and ships passing by its man-made islands in the South China Sea. He explained that no country can create an island and then claim sovereignty over the airspace above it. Hence, he hoped that “China would temper . . . its behavior.” His comments raised eyebrows, including in China, whose foreign ministry promptly issued a statement that dismissed them.

Two years ago, when Duterte became president, he tried to strike a bargain with China. He would set aside the Philippines’ hard-won ruling from the international Permanent Court of Arbitration against China’s claims in the South China Sea, and instead offer China a carrot: joint development of natural gas reserves in their disputed waters. In return, he wanted China to halt the militarization of its man-made islands and allow Filipino fishermen to return to the waters around them. Moreover, he wanted access to Chinese grants and low-interest loans for infrastructure construction in the Philippines. Perhaps to overcome what he saw as Chinese reticence given the Philippines’ historically close ties with the United States, Duterte sweetened the pot further. In 2017, he offered to jointly explore the Benham Rise, an undersea area off the east coast of the Philippines, with China.

So far, Duterte has not seen much return on his strategy. The Chinese coast guard continues to seize the catches of Filipino fishermen and, while China has offered loans, their terms have been worse than those offered by other countries, notably Japan. Meanwhile, Chinese behavior in the South China Sea has become, if anything, more aggressive.

In December 2017, China flaunted footage of its new airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, one of its man-made islands in the South China Sea, on state-run China Central Television. That left the Philippines feeling misled; Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana grumbled that “the Chinese government said some time ago that they were not going to militarize those reclaimed islands.” As a result, Manila lodged a formal diplomatic protest. Yet Beijing continued to build military facilities on the islets it occupies in the Spratly archipelago.

Possibly as a result, Duterte rescinded his offer to jointly explore the Benham Rise with China in February. He then qualified his offer of joint development for offshore natural gas. Any deal struck for joint development must be with a Chinese company, not Beijing, Duterte said. After all, a deal with Beijing would confer legitimacy onto Chinese claims on the South China Sea, whose eastern waters the Philippines still contends are its own.

China paid no heed to Duterte’s gestures. In April, Philippine media reported images of two Chinese military aircraft on Mischief Reef. Then, a month later, China revealed that it flew several H-6K bombers to one of its South China Sea islands and armed three of them—Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef—with long-range YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles. Manila responded with an “appropriate action,” presumably in the form of another diplomatic protest.

Little surprise then that Duterte’s political opponents in the Philippines have seized on the issue, accusing him of failing to protect Philippine sovereignty. That has pushed Duterte to take a slightly firmer line in the South China Sea, announcing that the Philippines was prepared to go to war if its troops were ever harmed there. Soon after, in June, Manila aired its concern over the growing number of sometimes-menacing Chinese radio warnings to Philippine aircraft and ships. Filipino officials reported that their patrol aircraft received 46 such warnings in the second half of 2017 and now receive them daily.

His most recent comments notwithstanding, Duterte seems committed to his lean-toward-China strategy. He continues to play down fears over Chinese military bases in the South China Sea. And he prefers to blame prior Philippine administrations and the United States for his country’s security predicament—the former for not beefing up defenses in the Spratly archipelago and the latter for not preventing China from building bases there in the first place. Unfortunately for the Philippines, even if Duterte changes strategic direction, he has few politically palatable alternatives.