President Rodrigo Duterte speaks upon his arrival at Davao International Airport. Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr
President Rodrigo Duterte speaks upon his arrival at Davao International Airport. Photo: Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

As China relentlessly militarizes contested islands and features across the South China Sea, the Philippines appears to be finally taking a tougher stance on its competing claims. How Beijing responds to Manila’s apparent harder line will have implications for regional peace and stability.

For the first time, President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration has issued several seemingly official “red lines” amid China’s creeping presence in Philippine-claimed waters. If Beijing continues to push, it jeopardize its rapprochement with Manila and put relations back on a confrontational track.

The new “red lines”, which threaten war if China crosses them, mark a departure from Duterte’s previous defeatist statements on China’s supremacy in the contested maritime area. The leader had previously said the Philippines’ options were either a suicidal war or acquiescence.

In recent months, Duterte had quipped about the Philippines’ becoming a Chinese “province”, advised smaller claimants in the area to be “meek” and “humble” to win Beijing’s “mercy”, and played down the landmark arbitration award handed down by a tribunal attached to The Hague in July 2016 which heavily favored Manila’s over Beijing’s claims in the maritime area.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, is shown the way by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in October 2016. Photo: AFP.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is shown the way by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Beijing, October 2016. Photo: AFP

Last year, Duterte took many – including China – by surprise when he accused Beijing of threatening war if the Philippines insisted on its sovereign rights and claims as outlined under international law in the contested maritime area.

“Their answer to me was, ‘We are friends and we do not want to quarrel with you and we want to maintain the present warm relationship we have,’” Duterte said after his visit to Beijing in May 2017. At the time, he also said Chinese President Xi Jinping told him, “But if you force the issue, we go to war.”

In recent days, however, the Philippine leader has stuck a less conciliatory tone. The perceptible shift has come amid mounting domestic pressure, both from within a defense establishment which remains wary of China, as well as the political opposition and broader media-intelligentsia complex which is close to America.

In a recent speech, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano set three different “red lines” for the disputed areas. Duterte, the Filipino diplomat claimed, is willing to go to war no matter the consequences if China violated any one of them,

The first red line is any Chinese move to reclaim or build on the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 100 nautical miles from Philippine shores.

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The feature has been under China’s de facto control after a months-long standoff in mid-2012 which ignited a full-scale diplomatic crisis and pushed the Philippines to file its international arbitration case against China.

The Philippines and US have also recently conducted joint war games close to the shoal. To aid its treaty ally, the United States Navy has been conducting surveillance missions and earlier this year Freedom of Navigations Operations (FONOPs) in the vicinity of the shoal to challenge and deter China’s full-fledged occupation.

Indeed, US support may have given ballast to Duterte’s harder line. On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said America would continue to confront China’s militarization of islands in the South China Sea, despite drawing condemnation from Beijing for a FONOPs operation in the region over the weekend, Reuters reported.

Duterte’s second red line is any coercive Chinese move against the Philippine marine detachment guarding the Second Thomas Shoal. For the past two decades, a handful of Filipino marines aboard a grounded and rusty vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, have been stationed in the area to assert the Philippines’ claim over the shoal, which lies within its continental shelf.

China has previously threatened to evict the Filipino forces based there by harassing their supply lines. “Our soldiers should not be harassed when they deliver supplies or when they repair the runways,” Cayetano said.

A Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and is now a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
A Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra Madre on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

The final red line is any unilateral Chinese drilling for natural resources, particularly oil and gas, within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“Another red line is that nobody will get natural resources there on their own,” Cayetano added. “The President has said that: If anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, he will go to war.”

Duterte has consistently pushed for joint exploitation and development of resources as a possible solution to the dispute with China. In 2016, the Filipino president said he will raise the Philippines’ arbitration award at The Hague if and “when the minerals are already being siphoned out” by China.

Cayetano has so far declined to take a tougher stance against China’s deployment of advanced military assets to Philippine-claimed land features and across the South China Sea. In recent weeks, China has landed nuclear capable bombers, deployed missiles and positioned jamming devices on contested features in the area.

Cayetano has claimed that necessary actions are being taken from behind the scenes as part of a “quiet diplomacy” strategy with China. At the same time, he promised to resign from office if the Philippines lost any additional territory to China under his watch as the country’s top diplomat.

Filipino Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters in Philippine occupied Thitu Island in the Spratly Islands at disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro - RTS139QV
Filipino Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talks to reporters on Philippine occupied Thitu Island, April 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

“[I]f we lost a single island during Duterte’s time, I will pack my bags, go home,” the diplomat said, visibly angered and vexed by the constant criticism of his supposed soft-pedaling on China.

In another break with the past, the Philippine government has also reportedly started long-overdue repairs of its decades-old facilities on the contested Thitu Island.

Unlike China and to a lesser degree Vietnam, there is little indication the government plans any major upgrade or deployment of advanced military assets to the island. The Philippines is primarily repairing its dilapidated airstrip and some basic facilities to sustain its modest presence in the Spratly chain of islands.

Still, there are signs that the Duterte administration is taking a more assertive position in the disputed areas as public pressure builds against China’s recent moves in Philippine-claimed waters. Whether he will be forced to back his rhetoric with action will depend on China’s next moves in the area.