Filipino activists march towards the Chinese consulate for a protest in Manila on February 10, 2018, against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government has officially called on China to comply with a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague against its expansive claims to the South China Sea, the first time Manila has appealed to Beijing to honor the verdict.

Over the past four years, Duterte has consistently downplayed the significance of arbitration award and the two sides’ maritime disputes in a diplomatic bid to secure China’s aid, patronage and investments. But there are signs that Duterte’s honeymoon with China is coming to an end.

In 2016, the China-leaning Duterte public declared, “[i]n the play of politics now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling.” He has insisted that by “set[ting] aside your claim”, there could be a peaceful resolution of disputes through joint development agreements with “Chinese companies.” 

But Beijing’s strategic opportunism amid the Covid-19 pandemic and its failure to date to deliver promised big-ticket investments, have triggered an apparent shift in Manila’s policy. To deter further Chinese encroachment into its claimed waters, the Philippines is also rapidly modernizing its naval capabilities under Duterte’s watch.

In an official statement on July 12, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr declared the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which chastised China’s reclamation activities and legally nullified its nine-dash line and “historic rights” claims to the sea as “non-negotiable.”

“The Philippines, as a law-abiding, peace-loving, and responsible member of the international community, reaffirms on this occasion its adherence to the award and its enforcement without any possibility of compromise or change,” the Philippine diplomatic chief said on the four-year anniversary of the ruling.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr makes a point in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Locsin openly called for China’s “compliance” as a signatory to the UNCLOS in a show of “good faith” and said the ruling “clearly mark[s] out who would be in the wrong to insist on claims contrary to this award.”

It was the first time a top Duterte official categorically demanded full Chinese compliance with the international ruling under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

At the time of the ruling, President Xi Jinping said China’s “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” in the seas would not be affected by the ruling. Xinhua, the country’s official news agency, described the ruling as “ill-founded” and “naturally null and void.”

The Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper the People’s Daily said that the tribunal ignored “basic truths” and “trampled” on international laws and norms and that “the Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly oppose [the ruling] and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it.”

That’s effectively been Beijing’s line on the landmark ruling since.

But Locsin, who has overseen a dramatic shift in the tone of Philippine foreign policy over the past year, reiterated that Manila “overwhelmingly won” the ruling, which he said, “conclusively settles the issue of historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea.”

Since assuming office in late 2018, the former journalist notorious for his often provocative and off-the-cuff tweets, has adopted a gradually but increasingly tough stance towards China, while at the same time emphasizing the importance of the Philippine-US alliance.

In contrast, his predecessor and current Speaker of the Congress Alan Peter Cayetano faithfully echoed Duterte’s fulsome praise for China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

Manila’s diplomatic shift comes in the context of shifting strategic currents. In recent months, Indonesia and the US have submitted official letters to the United Nations to reiterate the importance of the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, which was initiated by the previous Benigno Aquino administration.

Meanwhile, at the recently-concluded Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, regional states “reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.”

This marked the first time that the regional body, currently under Vietnam’s chairmanship, has explicitly invoked the UNCLOS as the sole basis to resolve regional maritime disputes. China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan all have competing claims in the sea.

Locsin has also been vocal about China’s unmet promises of economic largesse, which some analysts saw as a sort of quid pro quo exchange for Philippine acquiescence to Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea. Last year, during an event on the UN General Assembly’s sidelines, he complained that China’s investment pledges “hardly materialized.”

Beijing had earlier in Duterte’s tenure dangled $26 billion worth of aid and investment for various projects. Those undelivered goods include a train project that was designed to run across Duterte’s home island of Mindanao with a station in his hometown of Davao.    

At the same time, an increasingly frustrated Philippines is also building up its defense capabilities, including to project more power into the South China Sea.

Despite his outwardly China-friendly pronouncements, Duterte has continued his predecessor’s effort to modernize the country’s naval and air force capabilities through a multi-billion-dollar “horizons” initiative.

The government is expected to allocate $5.6 billion for the second “horizon” (2018-2022) of a three-phase, 15-year modernization program, with a growing focus on the acquisition of new warships, jet fighters, and missile defense systems.

On July 10, Duterte praised the commissioning of the country’s first missile-capable frigate, named after the country’s founding father, Jose Rizal, as a harbinger of a “new era” for the Philippine Navy.

The new warship, built by South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI), has advanced electronic warfare operations capable of conducting anti-submarine, anti-air, and anti-surface warfare.

Before the end of the year, the Philippines is expected to receive another warship, named after another revolutionary hero, Antonio Luna, which is also built by the South Korean group.

“Today is the beginning of a new era of development and transformation of our Philippine Navy as we witness the commissioning of [warship of the Philippine republic] Jose Rizal,” the Filipino president said in a taped message to the country’s grateful naval forces.