Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has come under pressure from his defense establishment to take a tougher tack with China. Photo: Reuters /Romeo Ranoco

Ten months into Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte’s tenure, his strategic honeymoon with China has devolved into rocky relations. While the two sides will likely continue dialogue and negotiations to prevent armed conflict in the South China Sea and pursue more robust economic ties, both sides are simultaneously hardening their positions over contested territories.

That became starkly apparent during the recent diplomatic scuffle over Manila’s decision to dispatch top defense officials to a contested island feature in the Spratly islands. While China protested the move as a provocation, the Philippines portrayed the visit as routine, despite the fact no high level officials had traveled to the maritime feature in several years.

A view of Philippine occupied (Pag-asa) Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

During his election campaign, Duterte expressed a strong interest in building more amicable and cooperative relations with Beijing, which he has said he views as a crucial partner for economic development. In that direction, shortly after his election win, Duterte vowed to adopt a more “independent” foreign policy which would be less reliant on the United States.

The tough-talking leader has prioritized improving ties with Beijing, which openly welcomed the departure of Duterte’s predecessor, Beningo Aquino, who had boosted strategic ties with the US and staked out what some viewed as a confrontational strategy in the South China Sea disputes. Duterte’s turn entailed several concessions to China that his critics claim could erode national sovereignty and security in pursuit of economic gains.

Those include a decision to deemphasize the Philippines’ landmark international arbitration win that invalidated Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea; cancellation of several joint military exercises with the US, namely the US-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex) and Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise (Carat); stopping the US from using Philippine ports for freedom of navigation operations; and refusal to allow the US to develop the strategic Bautista Airbase on the island province of Palawan.

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

In an increasingly strained balancing act, Duterte will no doubt continue to shower China with praise as he pursues closer economic ties. Duterte is scheduled to visit China in May to attend the One Road, One Belt (OBOR) mega-summit, where he is expected to hold bilateral talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in pursuit of new Chinese infrastructure investments. The two leaders met last year in Beijing in a tour many analysts at the time saw as a decisive diplomatic shift.

But China’s fast growing network of airbases and military facilities on disputed South China Sea land features, without a mutually acceptable modus vivendi in place to avoid conflicts at sea, has pushed his government and top generals to draw a harder line in the sand.

Philippine officials say they are adopting a more nuanced hedging strategy, whereby they bid to manage relations with China through a fluid mix of deterrence and engagement. In the past month, Manila has made clear that it seeks to fortify its position on features it claims in the South China Sea, as officials say both China and Vietnam are doing, and will no longer ignore the rising threat posed by China’s expanding strategic footprint in Philippine-claimed waters.

Chinese structures are pictured at the disputed Spratlys in the South China Sea on April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

“We hope that the Philippine side could cherish the hard-won sound momentum of development [in] bilateral relations [we] are experiencing,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang in response to last week’s visit by top Filipino defense officials to disputed Spratly island features. “[China is] gravely concerned about and dissatisfied with this, [and] has lodged representations with the Philippine side.”

The ministry also cautioned Manila to “faithfully follow the consensus” reached between the two national leaders in October last year.

Ernesto Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, fired back by saying that the trip was “part of efforts to improve the safety, welfare, [and] livelihood of Filipinos residing and living in the municipality of Kalayaan,” using the Philippines’ preferred word for the Spratlys.

In response to reports that a nearby Chinese military detachment at Subi Reef tried to drive away the plane that carried Filipino defense officials, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the president’s office said “The Philippines has long been undertaking customary and routine maritime patrol and overflight in the West Philippine Sea,” and that they “are lawful activities under international law.”

Filipino soldiers sing the national anthem on Philippine occupied (Pag-aasa) Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Weeks earlier, Beijing was openly vexed when Duterte announced with bravado that he will visit and plant the Philippine flag in the hotly-disputed Thitu Island (Pag-asa to Filipinos), the second largest naturally-formed land feature in the Spratlys. The island, which hosts an airstrip and civilian and military populations, has been under Manila’s administration since the 1970s. He also ordered troops to occupy and protect Philippine-claimed land features in the area.

Duterte later cancelled his plan to visit the features, in a convoluted nod towards Beijing’s displeasure. “China sent word, ‘Please do not do that,’ Well, in the meantime, just do not go there. Please?’” Duterte said in explaining his decision to walk back his decision. “So, because of our friendship with China, and because we value your friendship, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag. Maybe I’ll send my son.”

Soon thereafter Duterte gave the go-ahead to defense minister Delfin Lorenzana and armed forces chief of staff Eduardo Año to visit the disputed land feature, which China also considers part of its national territory under its wide-reaching nine-dash map. It was the first time in years that top Filipino defense officials traveled to the features. Lorenzana later described the trip as “routine.”

Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters on Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Unlike his predecessor Aquino, who prioritized mainly legal strategies against China, Duterte has earmarked 1.6 billion pesos (US$35 million) for the refurbishment and upgrade of Filipino facilities in the Spratlys. The supposedly China-friendly Duterte has thus ironically taken a tougher position on the ground, committing resources and deploying defense officials to strengthen the Philippines’ position.

Those efforts have been spearheaded by Lorenzana, a decorated general and former attaché to Washington who also hails from Duterte’s home island of Mindanao. In recent months, Lorenzana has been among the most outspoken advocates for more robust resistance against China’s maritime ambitions, while emphasizing the importance of maintaining strong security cooperation with America.

China is no doubt starting to realize that Duterte’s government, which has taken a more pragmatic position on the territorial disputes, will not be an easy strategic pushover, even with Beijing’s rich offers of economic assistance. In ‘good cop, bad cop’ fashion, the defense establishment is taking a stronger stand against China’s maritime ambitions near the Philippines’ coasts, while Duterte maintains a diplomatic charm offensive towards Beijing.

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