Duterte starts piv­ot­ing Philip­pines to China

China Daily (USA) - - TOP NEWS - By BLOOMBERG

Just when some of China’s neigh­bors were seek­ing to cur­tail its ex­pan­sion­ism, along came Ro­drigo Duterte.

In less than three months on the job, the 71-year-old Philip­pine leader has used ex­ple­tives in talk­ing about US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and vowed to end co­op­er­a­tion with the US mil­i­tary in both fight­ing ter­ror­ism and pa­trolling the dis­puted South China Sea. He’s moved to boost eco­nomic and de­fense ties with China and Rus­sia.

While Duterte is un­pre­dictable — one day calling China “gen­er­ous” and the next threat­en­ing a “bloody” war if Bei­jing at­tacked — his be­hav­ior has un­der­mined US ef­forts to rally na­tions from Ja­pan to Viet­nam to Aus­tralia to stand up to China’s mil­i­tary as­sertive­ness.

In do­ing so, he risks shift­ing from the 1951 Philip­pine-US de­fense treaty, which has been a bedrock of Amer­i­can in­flu­ence in the re­gion. While Duterte has said he’ll re­spect the al­liance, he’s re­peat­edly stressed the need for an “in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy” and ques­tioned Amer­ica’s will­ing­ness to in­ter­vene if China were to seize ter­ri­tory in the South China Sea.

“This could be the game changer for the South China Sea sit­u­a­tion in gen­eral and Sino-US re­gional com­pe­ti­tion specif­i­cally,” said Zhang Bao­hui, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Asian Pa­cific Stud­ies at Ling­nan Univer­sity in Hong Kong. “Duterte’s for­eign pol­icy may dra­mat­i­cally shift the geostrate­gic pic­ture of the re­gion, leav­ing China in an ad­van­ta­geous po­si­tion ver­sus the United States.”

One of the big­gest ben­e­fits for China is the po­ten­tial for a deal over the South China Sea. Just weeks af­ter Duterte took of­fice in late June, an in­ter­na­tional ar­bi­tra­tion panel ruled that China’s claims to most of the wa­ter­way had no le­gal ba­sis — a win for the Philip­pines in a case brought by Duterte’s pre­de­ces­sor.

China chose not to par­tic­i­pate in the ar­bi­tra­tion and has de­nounced the tri­bunal de­ci­sion.

While Duterte has said he’ll re­spect the agree­ment, he’s sig­naled he’s open to talks with China, the coun­try’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner, and he did not push for the rul­ing to be men­tioned in the com­mu­nique last week from a sum­mit of South­east Asian lead­ers in Laos. Be­fore tak­ing of­fice, he said he’d con­sider set­ting aside ter­ri­to­rial dis­agree­ments to get a Chi­ne­se­built rail­way.

In July, Duterte sent for­mer pres­i­dent Fidel Ramos to Hong Kong to explore com­mon ground with China. Ramos later called for a big­ger role for the Philip­pines un­der China’s plan to link ports and other trad­ing hubs through­out Asia to Europe.

For­eign Min­istry spokes­woman Hua Chun­y­ing said on Sept 6 that China is “will­ing to make a joint ef­fort with the Philip­pine side to re­build mu­tual trust and push for­ward the bi­lat­eral ties”.

China claims sovereignty over all fea­tures that lie within a nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map en­clos­ing more than 80 per­cent of the South China Sea. It says that gives it the right to in­ter­dict mil­i­tary ships close to its ter­ri­tory — a po­si­tion the US op­poses.

Fu Ying, who chairs the For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee of China’s top law­mak­ing body, this month framed US-China ten­sions in the South China Sea as a fight over the free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion for naval war­ships and other non-com­mer­cial ves­sels within the 200-nau­ti­cal-mile ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones of coastal states.

“The Chi­nese want the South China Sea to be­come a Chi­nese strait, with con­trol of the mar­itime space and the air space above it,” said Mal­colm Davis, a se­nior an­a­lyst at the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute in Can­berra. “That is the long-term game, and flip­ping Duterte over to Bei­jing’s side is part of the play.”

China’s land recla­ma­tion and mil­i­tary buildup in the wa­ters have in re­cent years pushed some neigh­bors closer to the US. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has boosted mil­i­tary co­op­er­a­tion with na­tions such as Viet­nam, the Philip­pines, Sin­ga­pore and Ja­pan.

Still, at the sum­mit last week in Laos, a spat with Obama over Duterte’s war on drugs and the thou­sands of deaths it has caused over­shad­owed any crit­i­cism of China.

“That’s a very bad sce­nario,” said Hideki Mak­i­hara, a se­nior law­maker in Ja­pan’s rul­ing Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party, re­fer­ring to a po­ten­tial Philip­pine strate­gic align­ment with China. In that case, “at least we need Viet­nam, Malaysia and other coun­tries sur­round­ing the South China Sea in our group”, he said in an in­ter­view this week in Tokyo.

For now, US of­fi­cials are em­pha­siz­ing the ben­e­fits of de­fense ties with the Philip­pines.

“We’ve got a wide range of shared con­cerns and shared in­ter­ests, and the United States and the Philip­pines have been able to work ef­fec­tively to­gether in a va­ri­ety of ar­eas to ad­vance our mu­tual in­ter­ests,” White House press sec­re­tary Josh Earnest said on Mon­day.

A shift to­ward China may be dif­fi­cult for Duterte to sus­tain. If China re­fuses to make any tan­gi­ble con­ces­sions on the South China Sea, par­tic­u­larly over fish­ing re­sources at the dis­puted Scar­bor­ough Shoal, Duterte may face a do­mes­tic back­lash, ac­cord­ing to Richard Javad Hey­dar­ian, an as­sis­tant po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at De La Salle Univer­sity in Manila.

“This is pre­cisely why se­cu­rity re­la­tions with the United States will re­main in­dis­pens­able for the Philip­pines,” he wrote in an ar­ti­cle last week for the Wash­ing­ton-based Asia Mar­itime Trans­parency Ini­tia­tive.

Still, the US can no longer ex­pect the same level of strate­gic def­er­ence and diplo­matic sup­port. “This is the new nor­mal in Philip­pine-US re­la­tions.”

Duterte’s for­eign pol­icy may dra­mat­i­cally shift the geostrate­gic pic­ture of the re­gion.” Zhang Bao­hui, di­rec­tor, Cen­ter for Asian Pa­cific Stud­ies, Lin­gan Univer­sity, Hong Kong

ROMEO RANOCO / REUTERS

Philip­pines Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte re­views honor guard upon his ar­rival dur­ing the 250th Pres­i­den­tial Air­lift Wing (PAW) an­niver­sary at the Vil­lamor Air Base in Pasay city, metro Manila, on Sept 13.

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