Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks before soldiers during a visit to a military camp in southern Philippines, January 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Marconi Navales

“We cannot stop China from doing its thing. Even the Americans were not able to stop them,” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remarked on March 19 amid growing concerns over Beijing’s plan to build structures on the contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 100 nautical miles from Philippine mainland in the South China Sea.

Days earlier, Chinese news outlets reported that Xiao Jie, China’s Communist Party secretary of Sansha City, the prefecture that covers the Paracel island chain but also extends to the Scarborough Shoal, announced that China will soon build an “environmental monitoring station” on the disputed shoal.

The Filipino president’s remarks immediately provoked a flurry of criticism from leading political figures, including Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who called upon the president to refrain from making defeatist statements. He suggested instead for Duterte to assert diplomatic pressure on Beijing, as well as threaten to activate the Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States if necessary.

The Philippine Senate, a largely rubber stamp institution nowadays where Duterte enjoys supermajority support, also considered a resolution to pressure the president to take a tougher stance on the Scarborough Shoal issue. 

Duterte’s statement also ran counter to prevailing sentiments in the Philippine security establishment, which continues to view China’s moves in the South China Sea as a major threat. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has in recent months been among the most vocal critics of China’s maritime assertiveness.

Earlier he described any Chinese construction activity in the Scarborough Shoal as “very, very disturbing” and completely “unacceptable”, especially given its proximity to Philippine bases in Subic and Clark, the site of America’s largest military facilities in the region during the Cold War. In December, China captured a US underwater drone operating in the contested area (see map). 

While Duterte has consistently questioned America’s reliability as an ally, Lorenzana has openly acknowledged that the US’ presence has been instrumental in preventing China’s full-fledged occupation of the Scarborough Shoal. For Lorenzana and leading military officials, China is a revisionist power bent on dominating the maritime area, while the US is the country’s best insurance policy in case of a conflict.

Dutetre’s defense officials have made it clear in their public statements that they mistrust China and prefer to maintain robust military cooperation with the US. Given the military’s decisive role in Philippine politics, even a highly popular and strong-willed leader like Duterte can not afford to ignore his generals’ concerns.

Concerned: Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

As an article in a Chinese language People’s Liberation Army (PLA) magazine revealed earlier this month, the establishment of seemingly innocuous facilities serve the dual purpose of, first, strengthening China’s claim over contested land features and maritime resources, and, second, conceal the militaristic dimension of China’s expanding footprint in the disputed waters.

In recent years, China has deployed this strategy quite effectively in the contested Spratly and Paracel chain of islands. It started by discussing the establishment of marine research facilities, lighthouses, and tourist resorts on disputed shoals and features.

Since 2013, China has gradually established a sprawling network of airstrips and military facilities equipped with state-of-the-art weapon systems which give it the requisite capabilities to progressively restrict freedom of navigation and overflight for other claimant countries.

Beijing has since spun the controversial activities as part of broader efforts to provide international public goods such as safe havens and protection for fishermen stranded in high seas. Satellite images, however, reveal a different picture. 

Since 2013, China has gradually established a sprawling network of airstrips and military facilities equipped with state-of-the-art weapon systems which give it the requisite capabilities to progressively restrict freedom of navigation and overflight for other claimant countries.

The strategic upshot, the leaked PLA article says, is to make sure other claimants are “Intimidated by the projects” and thus “neighboring countries are unlikely to provoke any military conflict or escalate it into a war because they are too poorly prepared.”

Ill-prepared: A grounded Philippine Navy ship in the South China Sea. Reuters/Erik De Castro

The significance of the Scarborough Shoal is that it is the missing piece in the PLA’s envisioned ‘strategic triangle’ – covering the Paracels, Spratlys, and Scarborough Shoal – that will allow China to impose an exclusion zone across the South China Sea and restrict or deny access to major naval powers such as America and Japan if and when necessary.

Sensing a backlash in the Philippines, China’s Foreign Ministry vigorously denied reports, which were later mysteriously deleted, of any Chinese construction plan in the contested shoal. To mollify the highly critical Filipino public and security establishment, the Chinese government reiterated how it “cherish[es] the good momentum of the bilateral relationship [with Manila] and will be committed to pushing forward the sound, steady and rapid growth of the relationship.”

China is playing a dual game with the Philippines. That includes an aggressive charm offensive towards the Philippines, hoping to win Manila over by offering huge economic incentives. In recent weeks two senior Chinese officials, Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, who discussed the creation of a joint industrial park in the Philippines, and Vice Premier Wang Yang, who dangled a US$6 billion investment package, visited the Philippines.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters

China has found a sympathetic and pragmatic ally in Duterte, who has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for China’s “sincerity” and “loving” the Philippines. Downplaying concerns over the Scarborough Shoal developments, Duterte recently said: “So what do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation.”

By painting his critics as recklessly hawkish, Duterte is eager to defend his increasingly cozy relationship with the Asian powerhouse. But by brushing aside potential game-changing strategic developments, he risks alienating his own military, a vital constituency for his regime’s stability. 

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