Rodrigo Duterte came into office as Philippines’s 15th President on June 30, 2016. His approach to South China Sea dispute and his overall foreign policy once shocked many in the region, and more around the world. As his approach to South China Sea dispute differs from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III (in office 2010-2016), the world is watching what will come out of this diversion.
Under Benigno Aquino III’s presidency, Philippines was very assertive in emphasizing its claim upon the competing claims by several other countries in the South China Sea. During Aquino’s administration, the Philippines brought the case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2013. The decision came on July 12, 2016, about two weeks after Duterte assumed office.
Many predicted that Philippines would use the ruling from The Hague against China. However, Duterte used the award from the court in a different way. Instead of using it in multilateral forums to gain legitimacy, Duterte is willing to put aside the ruling in exchange of closer relations with China.
In forging closer relations with China, Duterte visited Beijing on October 2016, only months after he started his administration. He came back to the Philippines by bringing China’s promise to give investments worth of USD 24 billion to the Philippines (USD 9 billion of soft loans and USD 15 billion of direct investment). However, before going deeper to further discussion, it is important to understand some buzzwords surrounding the issue.
What is the South China Sea Dispute?
There are currently at least five competing claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines puts its claim on the basis of 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as it rules for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to be demarcated as much as 200 miles from its baseline. This claim overlaps the Chinese claim, which is based on the “nine-dash line”. China claims that the “nine-dash line” has been historically recorded by China as part of its territory, shown in a map published in the 1940s. Other claimants include Vietnam, Malaysia, and tiny Brunei, with most of them referring their claim to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea while they also see that China’s claim is void before the international law. (source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-tries-to-refocus-south-china-sea-dispute-on-rocks-and-reefs-1468396989)
What are the rulings?
The Philippines initiated the arbitration in January 2013 by seeking rulings on several matters. In 2016, PCA rules that China’s claims of historic rights within the “nine-dash line” were without legal foundation. The panel also rules that Beijing’s activities within Philippines’s 200 nautical miles EEZ, such as illegal fishing and artificial island construction, violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines.
The arbitration, which was initiated by the Philippines in 2013, was filed under Benigno Aquino III’s administration. However, though, after Duterte assumed office, Philippines’ approach changed dramatically.
Shifting from the Traditional Ally
Not very fond of Former US President Barack Obama, Duterte dismissed a military cooperation with the United States soon after he started his administration. Duterte ended the joint military exercises between the United States and the Philippines through a statement delivered on September 2016, about two months after he was sworn to office.
Duterte’s dislike of Obama could be one of the contributing factors that fuel Philippines’s shift from its traditional ally to an unpredicted new friend at that time, each of them being the United States and China respectively. Duterte seemed to dislike Obama that much as he told Obama to “go to hell” in a statement he delivered in 2016.
The shift from the traditional ally indicates Philippines’ growing closeness with China. Duterte said that Philippines cannot afford war with China. He also added that [the Philippines] ‘cannot win a battle against China’. In a separate occasion, Duterte delivered a rhetorical question, which sounds more like a statement, asking ‘why will [Philippines’s] soldiers fight a war they would lose?’
Chinese Investment Promise: Two Years On
However, two years on, China’s investment that was promised earlier in 2016 has not yet come into reality. Some like Alvin Camba (2018) would argue that the Philippines has not seen an increase in Chinese investment yet not because the investment from China has not actually increased, but instead because there is an error in the calculation, in which Hong Kong is excluded from the equation, even though ‘much of Chinese FDI coming to the Philippines is actually from Hong Kong’. He calls this error as “a fundamental accounting error” , and that the prevailing narrative in major newspaper reports that Chinese FDI in the Philippines has barely increased during the Duterte administration is a “misidentification” .
Whether the Chinese has indeed not delivered the promise or there is an error in the calculation, it is not wise to make a judgment only after two years since the promise was said. Besides the fact that some information on export-import and FDI might not be complete yet for collection and subsequent availability for public, a better outcome can be expected from an assessment after Duterte’s tenure finishes.
Hedging Amid Uncertainty
Anyhow, with growing uncertainty in the air, the current situation forces the Philippines to diversify its foreign policy strategy.
Came to office in 2017, current US President Donald Trump is forging a warm relationship with Duterte. This can be seen from the “warm rapport” between the two during his visit to the Philippines in 2017. Trump even lauds his relationship with Duterte as a ‘great relationship’.
Bound by their dislike of former US President Barack Obama, they are having a very close relationship. This warm relationship may be one of the reasons behind Philippines growing closeness with its traditional ally under Duterte, after Duterte himself severed the relationship with the United States under Obama administration.
Philippines is right to hedge in this uncertain situation. Hedging is defined by Hemmings (2013) as the action to “spread risk by pursuing opposite policies towards another state” and to “carry out two contradictory policy directions simultaneously: balancing and engagement”.
By balancing, Hemmings (2013) meant the maintenance of a strong military, building and strengthening alliances – as done by the Philippines through its re-engagement with US military.
On the other hand, by engaging, he meant building trade networks, increasing diplomatic links, and creating binding multilateral frameworks (Hemmings, 2013). This approach is taken by Duterte through his action to put aside The Hague ruling in exchange of closer relations with China. Additionally, the joint exploration for oil and natural gas between China and the Philippines can be seen as another way to engage China.
This hedging strategy is also visible from Duterte’s remarks during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2017. Duterte stated that eventually, he would eventually raise the arbitration ruling with Xi Jinping, but needed first to strengthen relations between the two countries, which the Philippines is hoping will yield billions of dollars in Chinese loans and infrastructure investments.
By putting its two legs on two grounds, Philippines is trying to play it safe. It is impossible to judge Duterte’s foreign approach only after two years of his leadership. He has another four years to serve, given the six years term in his presidency.
Duterte is wise to hedge in such uncertain situation. With the United States seeing the Philippines as an increasingly important ally in the region and with China’s unpredictable move, re-engagement with traditional ally and effort not to upset an increasingly dominant power in the region are not a bad idea after all.
- (2018). Philippines can’t afford war with China: Duterte. Retrieved from https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/philippines-can-t-afford-war-with-china-duterte/1154133.
ABS-CBN News. (2018). Duterte on South China Sea dispute: Why will soldiers fight a war they would lose? Retrieved from https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/06/06/18/duterte-on-south-china-sea-dispute-why-will-soldiers-fight-a-war-they-would-lose.
BBC News. (2016). Philippines’ Duterte tells Obama to ‘go to hell’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-37548695.
Bloomberg. (2017). Trump Bonds With Duterte Over Their Dislike of Obama, Avoids Human Rights. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-13/trump-to-meet-duterte-as-ties-warm-a-year-after-obama-dust-up.
Bloomberg. (2018). China Hasn’t Delivered on Its $24 Billion Philippines Promise. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-07-25/china-s-24-billion-promise-to-duterte-still-hasn-t-materialized.
Camba, A. (2018). Assessing Duterte’s China investment drive. Retrieved from https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/assessing-dutertes-china-investment-drive.
Camba, A. (2018). What happened to the billions China pledged the Philippines? Not what you think. Retrieved from https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/business/article/2158237/what-happened-billions-china-pledged-philippines-not-what-you.
Graham, E. (2016). The Hague Tribunal’s South China Sea Ruling: Empty Provocation or Slow-Burning Influence? Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/councilofcouncils/global_memos/p38227.
Hemmings, J. (2013). Hedging: The Real U.S. Policy Towards China? Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2013/05/hedging-the-real-u-s-policy-towards-china.
Manila Bulletin. (2018). Duterte: ‘We cannot win a battle against China’. Retrieved from https://news.mb.com.ph/2018/05/24/duterte-we-cannot-win-a-battle-against-china.
Rappler. (2018). China lost to PH in court. Will it win via joint exploration? Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/nation/215427-wang-yi-visit-will-china-win-via-joint-exploration-west-philippine-sea.
Reuters. (2017). Duterte says China’s Xi threatened war if Philippines drills for oil. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-philippines-china/duterte-says-chinas-xi-threatened-war-if-philippines-drills-for-oil-idUSKCN18F1DJ.
Reuters. (2017). Trump has ‘warm rapport’ with Philippines’ Duterte: official. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trump-asia-duterte/trump-has-warm-rapport-with-philippines-duterte-official-idUSKBN1D0234.
The Guardian. (2016). Rodrigo Duterte to end joint US and Philippine military drills. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/29/rodrigo-duterte-to-end-joint-us-and-philippine-military-drills.
The Japan Times. (2018). China’s $24 billion promise to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterter still hasn’t materialized. Retrieved from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/07/30/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/chinas-24-billion-promise-philippines-rodrigo-duterte-still-hasnt-materialized/#.W9Z6NbaB3-Y.
The New York Times. (2017). Trump Lauds ‘Great Relationship’ With Duterte in Manila. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/13/world/asia/trump-duterte-philippines.html.
VOA. (2018). Distrust of China Sparks Philippines, US to Step up Joint Military Exercises. Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/a/china-philippines-us-joint-military-exercises/4600885.html
This article was written by Angelo A. Wijaya, an undergraduate student at International Relations Universitas Gadjah Mada, while doing an internship at the Center for Southeast Asian Social Studies (CESASS).