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.
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.