“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control [in the South China Sea]” declared Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ tough-talking leader, during a Thursday visit to the western island province of Palawan, where he met with military officers. “What’s ours now, at least, let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours.”
In a remarkable turn, Duterte ordered Filipino troops to occupy and assert Philippine sovereignty over “nine or 10” disputed land features across the Spratly island chain, a maritime area contested by China and other Southeast Asian nations. Duterte even promised to personally raise the Philippine flag on the Thitu Island (Pag-Asa to Filipinos) on the Philippines’ Independence Day on June 12.
On Friday, Philippine military and defense officials moved to clarify Duterte’s order to deploy and build on uninhabited islands and shoals, saying they planned only to upgrade existing facilities on already inhabited features. They cited a 2002 informal Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China code of conduct for activities in the disputed waters that bars expansionist moves over contested areas.
Weeks earlier, Duterte falsely claimed that he gave China permission to explore the Benham Rise, part of Philippine continental shelf on the Pacific, and nonchalantly suggested that his country can’t do anything if Beijing chooses to build facilities on the Scarborough Shoal, a contested land feature around 100 nautical miles from Philippine shores.
The controversial comments provoked a flurry of criticism across the country, with leading political figures and legislators cautioning the president against making any defeatist statements. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has openly expressed the military’s and broader defense establishment’s concerns over Chinese maritime assertiveness in the western and eastern waters of the Philippines.
Influential experts warned Duterte of the risk of facing impeachment if he doesn’t fully assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights and claims, based on the Philippine constitution and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, particularly in the Benham Rise. An opposition legislator formally filed an impeachment complaint against the president that is still pending.
International rulings over the South China Sea have so far lacked strong enforcement mechanisms, leading to the creeping militarization of the area. According to a 2012 ruling by the United Nations, Manila has exclusive jurisdiction on and sovereign right to explore and exploit mineral, hydrocarbon and fishery resources in the Benham Rise. The Philippine constitution, meanwhile, lists Scarborough Shoal as national territory.
Widely viewed as a China dove keen to revive trade and investment ties with Asia’s largest economy, Duterte has swung erratically between appeasement and defiance towards China, stoking confusion and anxiety over the direction of his foreign policy.
To be sure, Duterte is no stranger to chutzpah. During his presidential campaign last year, he famously remarked tongue in cheek that he would be willing to ride a jet ski and personally plant a Philippine flag on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which is currently under Chinese administrative control.
It is thus no wonder that many experts are skeptical whether Duterte really means what he says. Jay Batongbacal, a leading maritime law expert in the Philippines, told the New York Times that Duterte is either “playing to the gallery” or set to “provoke a serious crisis [with China]” by his call on Thursday to deploy troops to features in the South China Sea.
Duterte is more likely responding to growing domestic political pressure, both from the security establishment and broader public, to adopt a tougher position on China and the South China Sea disputes rather than deliberately provoking Beijing. Amid the recent backlash against his appeasement-sounding remarks, Duterte is now keen to restore his patriotic credentials.
Either way, strategists at home are perturbed by the president’s often loose language on sensitive territorial and maritime disputes. There is a rising risk, they say, that his statements may either provoke a diplomatic crisis with other claimant states or embolden China to further fortify its military presence and declare an exclusion zone over the contested waters.
It is not altogether clear what Duterte means by “occupation” of islands under Philippine control and what his comments could portend in operational terms. The Philippines has laid claim to nine land features in the Spratlys, mostly reefs and low-tide elevations with the exception of Thitu, the second largest naturally formed land feature in the area, which has hosted an airstrip since 1977, a permanent detachment of troops and a civilian community with its own mayor.
Under Ferdinand Marcos’ strongman rule (1965-1986), the Philippines was among the first countries, along with Vietnam, to establish modern military facilities in the area, including a 1,300-meter long runway to host Filipino aircrafts.
Over the past four decades, however, Filipino leaders largely neglected the refurbishment and expansion of these facilities. Roilo Golez, a former Philippine national security adviser, recently told this writer, Manila’s strategic planning in the South China Sea has been “dominated by internal defense officers who looked inward and ignored the China threat in spite of repeated warnings.”
He laments how defense acquisitions over the years went mostly to “minor items” that “were useless” in regard to Philippine strategic interests in the disputed waters.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, boosted defense spending specifically for maritime security deterrence and a more South China Sea-focused strategic policy. Yet, he repeatedly postponed plans to rehabilitate the decrepit infrastructure in Thitu in order to maintain a “moral high ground” against further militarization of the area after a landmark arbitration win against China last year at The Hague.
Duterte has played down the significance of the ruling, which was legally based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and effectively discredited the legitimacy of China’s nine-dash map that lays claim to nearly all the South China Sea. China has consistently rejected the ruling, which spokesmen have termed as “illegitimate” and “unenforceable.”
At a minimum, Duterte could make a stand by refurbishing existing facilities on Thitu island. For now, it seems highly unlikely he will reclaim other reefs and low-tide elevations claimed by the Philippines, or even step up maritime patrols in the contested area, for fear of riling China. But he’s now faced with the increasingly fraught balancing act of improving ties with Beijing while also keeping nationalist passions at home at bay.