South China Sea and the Philippines
Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines is seen by many as China’s newest best friend. After all, the Philippine leader has demolished the country’s years-long role as the vortex of resistance against China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, while simultaneously downgrading security cooperation with the United States—its treaty ally.
In an abrupt break from his predecessor Benigno Aquino’s policy, Duterte has effectively “set aside” the Philippines’ landmark arbitration awardagainst China in the South China in pursuit of warmer ties with Beijing.
China and the Philippines are now considering a series of resource-sharing agreements in the South China Sea, the latest development in a diplomatic warming trend that has reset the disputed maritime area’s strategic calculus.
The initiative was made public during the late March visit of Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano to Beijing, where he echoed President Rodrigo Duterte in hailing a “golden period” in Philippine-China relations.
Over the past year, President Duterte has repeatedly expressed a preference for “co-ownership” of disputed hydrocarbon and marine resources with Beijing. Placing normalization of bilateral ties with China at the heart of his foreign policy agenda, Duterte appears determined to bolster ties with the Asian powerhouse, even if it means dialing back his country’s legitimate sovereign rights and interests in the South China Sea.
In particular, the Filipino leader is betting on a huge inflow of Chinese investments as a reward for adopting a more acquiescent position on the maritime disputes. Over the past two years, China has dangled $24 billion in trade and investment deals in the Philippines to sweeten any potential deal.
The latest data, however, show that traditional allies like Japan, the United States, and Europe lead the investment landscape in the Philippines. During Duterte’s first year in office, Japan’s investments climbed from $490 million in 2016 to $600 million in 2017, an increase of 23.79 percent. American investment dropped by almost 70 percent, but still amounted to $160 million. In contrast, Chinese investment in the period went from only $27 million in 2016 to $31 million in 2017. Japanese investment was more than 23 times that of China.
“I cannot go to war with China,” said Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte whenever he was pressed about his country’s challenged sovereignty claim over a portion of the South China Sea.
It’s the same line he told his Navy on its 120th anniversary in May. Although appreciative of the sailors’ “gallant” efforts to defend the archipelago’s maritime territory, Duterte implicitly acknowledged their inferiority to their Chinese counterparts.
“I cannot go into a battle that I cannot win,” he said before the Navy’s ranks and top brass.
Asian Maritime Transparent Initiative Link
The National Interest Link
Jorge Emilio Núñez
10th September 2018