A Philippine naval officer stands guard during the arrival of American missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon before US-Philippine joint naval military exercises in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis/Getty Images

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has abruptly banned his naval forces from participating in joint maritime exercises with the United States and others in the South China Sea, a move which could undermine Washington’s bid to build an anti-China bulwark of like-minded allies in the contested waterway.

The controversial decision has provoked an uproar across the country and is seen as yet another Duterte concession to Beijing, significantly just weeks after top Filipino officials publicly criticized China and demanded it comply with a 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling that favored the Philippines’ sea claims over China’s.

In a sign of Manila’s increasingly erratic defense signals, Duterte did not apparently oppose an expanded Filipino naval contingent’s participation in the biennial Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2020 (RIMPAC20) in Honolulu, Hawaii, the world’s largest US-led international warfare exercise.

The Philippines will send its newly-commissioned missile-frigate BRP Jose Rizal (FF-150) to the large-scale naval exercises between the US and two dozen allies scheduled for two weeks later this month. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, some invited nations may not attend.  

Following allegations of espionage and amid deteriorating ties, US President Donald Trump’s administration has disinvited China from the RIMPAC. Adding to the tensions, the US recently characterized much of China’s South China Sea claims as “unlawful”, a marked departure from Washington’s previous position of not taking sides in the region’s disputes.

Philippine and US soldiers in a joint amphibious attack exercise, October 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The upshot for the Philippines is a “double-balancing” strategy where at once Duterte’s government is bent on balancing its relations with both the US and China while his top officials maintain that there is no tilt towards Beijing despite Duterte’s frequent anti-Western tirades.

“President Rodrigo Duterte has a standing order to us, to me, that we should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except our national waters, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” said Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on August 4 in an online press briefing.

The surprise announcement comes just weeks after he and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr called on China to comply with The Hague’s July 2016 arbitral ruling in Manila’s favor. That call was in line with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tough “illegal” statement on China’s South China Sea claims.

Previously, the Beijing-friendly Duterte tried to improve relations with China by downgrading his government’s maritime cooperation with the US. During his first year in office, Duterte canceled joint war games with allies in the South China Sea, barred US warships from utilizing Philippine bases during their Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against China and vetoed plans for joint patrols in the disputed waters.

Duterte has also barred American forces from prepositioning weapons systems and counter-espionage infrastructure in key Philippine bases where US troops are based on a rotational basis that could be deemed as a threat by China.

Under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the US was supposed to gain military access to strategic facilities such as Basa Airbase, which is close to the sea’s disputed Scarborough Shoal, and Bautista Airbase, situated near the Spratly Islands. Both facilities would be crucial for projecting power into the sea in any conflict scenario.

Over the years, the US and Philippines have managed to restore and even expand military cooperation in response to threats, including from transnational terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

South China Sea-Map-Benham Rise-Map-2017

However, Duterte has sought to dial down any joint military activities aimed overtly at China, including exercises that simulate amphibious invasions of islands, in an attempt to preserve cordial diplomatic ties and now secure privileged access to any Covid-19 vaccine developed by Beijing.

As pressure has mounted internally as well as from the US to take a tougher position on China, Duterte has doubled down on his efforts to prevent an all-out anti-China tilt to the Philippines’ South China Sea policy, despite Beijing’ aggressive moves in adjacent waters.

“We have to go to war. And I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can but I cannot. I’m useless when it comes to that. Really, I’m useless to that. I can’t do anything. I cannot,” Duterte said during a State of the Nation Address (SONA) last week at which he accused his critics of warmongering.

“China is claiming it, we are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it. So, it’s as simple as that. They are in possession of the property…so what can we do?” he added, underscoring the supposed futility of trying to “retake forcefully or physically the South China Sea.”

“Unless we are prepared to go to war, I would suggest that we better just cool off and treat this as a diplomatic endeavor,” the leader said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers during a visit to a Chinese Naval ship in Davao city, Philippines, May 1, 2017. Picture taken May 1, 2017. China Daily/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. CHINA OUT.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTS14RU8
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte salutes Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy soldiers during a visit to a Chinese Naval ship in Davao City, Philippines, May 1, 2017. Photo: China Daily

Despite Duterte’s deflections and remarks, the Philippine defense establishment is still committed to enhancing security cooperation and interoperability with its allies, namely the US.

Philippine Navy (PN) Vice Admiral Giovanni Carlo Bacordo, for one, has welcomed the opportunity to participate in this year’s RIMPAC exercises with an increasingly enlarged and modernized fleet. Naval Task Group 80.5 commander Captain Jerry Garrido Jr, the BRP Jose Rizal’s commanding officer, is leading the country’s contingent this year.

“Our participation in this exercise marks the beginning of a new era of naval operations as we build up our capabilities for modern warfare,” Bacordo said to Asia Times. “This is the first time that 100% of the crew will be together, to gel, work as a team,” he added.

The naval commander hailed the RIMPAC exercises as “an important input in the development of our doctrines in surface warfare operations ensuring that the PN is responsive against modern-day threats” which “enhances our cooperation and inter-operability with other foreign navies.”

“This is a great opportunity for the ship and its crew to observe and learn how other countries utilize weapons against air, surface and sub-surface threats,” Bacordo added.