Duterte Warns Beijing to Keep Away From Its South China Sea Possessions

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is loudly warning China to keep its distance from an island in the South China Sea that is considered by Manila to be an official municipality of the Philippines. Thitu Island has been occupied by the Philippines since 1970. It is the second largest of the non-artificial islands in the Spratly chain, and has long been envied by China. Duterte has threatened to send his military troops on a ‘suicide mission’ if Chinese pressure around the island does not ease, or if Beijing makes a move to occupy it.

According to the Philippine military, hundreds of Chinese vessels from fishing boats, to Coast Guard cutters have swarmed the island. Yesterday the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement calling the presence of the Chinese ships a ‘clear violation of Philippine sovereignty.’ China’s maritime presence around Thitu Island has been consistent.

Despite the warning, Duterte has maintained a friendly tone towards China. In the same campaign speech where he spoke of the Thitu Island situation, the president stated his belief that China ‘just wants to be friends with us.’ In a sharp contrast to Duterte’s words, his military chiefs are growing more concerned with Chinese moves in the South China Sea.  Duterte’s desire to curry favor from the United States and China simultaneously continues, and he remains either unconcerned with, or oblivious to the blowback his ‘on again-off again’ stance with China is creating.

The South China Sea has become alarmingly tense lately with the violation of the Median Line of the Taiwan Strait, and continuing US-led Freedom of Navigation exercises. In an alarmingly dangerous world, it will take little for a major conflict to brew up. The Thitu Island situation acts as the latest potential flashpoint in a region already filled with them.

Thursday 8 December, 2016 Update: Duterte’s SCS Maneuvering

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Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in Manila relations between the Philippines and China have improved considerably, while the PI’s relations with the United States have deteriorated to an extent. Duterte appears eager to move his nation out from beneath the shadow of the US and set it on a more independent course. Thursday’s remarks by the Philippine defense secretary are an example of this. Delfin Lorenzana said it is unlikely that the Philippines will allow the US to use his country as a springboard for freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. He pointed out that the US has numerous bases in the region that its ships and aircraft can use.

Under Beningo Aquino III’s presidency, some US aircraft and warships stopped in the Philippines on their way to patrols in the South China Sea. Lorenzana also said that President Duterte will probably not allow that to continue in order to “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”

This change in policy comes on the heels of Duterte proposing a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone be placed in the middle of the contested Scarborough Shoal last month. He told the media that he planned to sign an executive order declaring the zone and had discussed the matter with his ‘counterpart from China.’ Should Duterte issue the executive order it would reassert Philippine sovereignty over that area. A move like that will undoubtedly cause friction with China and puts Thursday’s comments by Lorenzana into a more coherent context perhaps. Removal of material support for US freedom of navigation exercises in exchange for China’s acceptance of the proposed Scarborough Shoal sanctuary.

Regardless of intentions and actions, it is clear that Duterte is playing a very shrewd game of geopolitical poker. His hand is nowhere near as strong as he would like. Much to his chagrin, the Philippines are not a major power in the South China Sea dispute. Manila has neither the political or military capital to influence the intentions and actions of the US and China in the region. Cozying up to China will bring short term benefits. However, China will act when it ready to act and in a manner that benefits its own national interests first and foremost. When that happens, Duterte will have minimal influence over the situation. His only viable option will be to tacitly approve of whatever plans Beijing has in mind. The same can be said for his stance with the United States.

To put it another way, Duterte is punching above his weight and if he is not wary, the US will not be there to administer a standing eight count if needed.

Monday 24 October, 2016 Update: Anxiety And Confusion In Washington And Manila

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial comments in Beijing last week have cast clouds of anxiety and uncertainty across the globe. Diplomats, government officials and analysts from Washington DC to Manila are attempting to decode the meaning behind Duterte’s proclamation that the Philippines would be severing its military and economic relationship with the United States and pursue friendly ties with Beijing. In the aftermath of the trip, Philippine government officials appeared to be taken aback by the comments as well and began damage control and attempts to clarify. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that Duterte was reiterating his wish for a foreign policy independent of Washington’s meddling and influence. Another cabinet official stressed that the Mutual Defense Treaty would not be abrogated and that the Philippines still consider the United States an ally.

Washington’s reaction to Duterte’s words has been to seek clarification from Manila about its intentions and the future of the US-Philippine relationship. On the surface Washington is projecting an air of calm as diplomats from the State Department arrive in Manila for talks with their Filipino counterparts. While this goes on, the White House is attempting to assure an increasingly anxious world that its relationship with the Philippines will continue and any attempts by Duterte to realign his country with China and Russia will not come at the expense of the United States. The Obama administration will have a short period of time to determine what Duterte’s real intentions are and begin formulating a response. Once the transition period begins after Election Day in the US, the problem will shift to the incoming administration.

The next administration in Washington is going to have to face the matter head on. The situation in the South China Sea could look radically different by January 20th, 2017 and the Asian Pivot, once the centerpiece of the Obama foreign policy, might be a shattered wreck.

 

Tuesday 12 July, 2016 Update: Tribunal Rules in South China Sea Case

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After a long wait the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has delivered its ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PCA has ruled that there is no legal basis to the claims and no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the South China Sea  (SCS) waters or resources. From an international law vantage point, the ruling invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the geographic boundary line that Beijing affixed to its SCS claims back in 1949. The PCA announced that it has also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines’ in the SCS by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration.

As expected, Beijing has labeled the ruling as ‘ill-founded’ and claimed that China will not be bound by it. “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated.

The reaction from other nations in the region has been more measured. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision ‘legally binding’ and urged all parties to comply. Vietnam is pleased with the PCA’s decision and has publicly said so, while also reasserting its own territorial claims. Manila has been strangely quiet, with the Philippine government welcoming the decision as ‘significant’ while also urging ‘all those concerned’ to ‘exercise restraint and sobriety.’ Many Filipinos believe that President Duterte may have received assurances of Chinese investment in exchange for a muted response from Manila.

The United States has reacted by urging all parties to avoid inflammatory and provocative statements or action to the ruling.

The predominant question at the moment is: How will China respond? Despite Beijing’s lack of interest in the PCA’s decision, the ruling is seen as humiliating and a loss of face. China lost on every point in the ruling and it will be difficult, if not impossible for China to do nothing. In September, the G20 summit meeting will be held in China. Does Beijing have the composure to wait until after the summit before taking action in the SCS?