Friend or Foe?
Recent events in disputed waters are making it harder for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to defend his pro-China policy
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in April in Beijing for talks on how to approach disputes in the South China Sea, they came out smiling. "Both sides," declared Mr Xi, "should renew their trust in keeping promises … [and] maintain peace and stability" in the contested waters.
The Filipino leader referred to China as a "strategic partner", which was not the first time he had suggested a significant shift away from Manila's historical ally, the United States.
Since becoming president in 2016, Mr Duterte has adopted many pro-China policies and turned a blind eye to China's assertion of territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea as he strives to enhance economic cooperation between the two countries.
However, recent developments may strain the goodwill between Manila and Beijing and push the issue of sovereignty back to the forefront of international politics.
The latest major incident involved a Chinese trawler, Yuemaobinyu 42212, which crashed into an anchored Filipino fishing vessel, Gem-Ver, on Reed Bank (Retco Bank, as it's known in the Philippines) on the night of June 9. The Chinese boat sped off and the 22 crewmen of the wrecked Filipino boat were rescued by a passing Vietnamese fishing vessel.
It was the first Filipino-Chinese confrontation in the disputed area since the 2012 standoff between vessels of the two countries around Scarborough Shoal. Manila filed a diplomatic protest over that incident. Authorities were more cautious about the June collision, saying they needed to determine whether it was accidental or deliberate.
Antonio Carpio, senior associate justice of the Philippine Supreme Court, was not as diplomatic. The collision was "a quantum escalation of China's aggressive acts against the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea", he was quoted as saying by the Rappler news site.
Public outrage greeted news of the collision in Manila. Around 50 demonstrators gathered at Rizal Park to protest and burn Chinese flags. Some held placards reading "End China Aggression" and "China hands off Filipino fishermen".
Anti-Chinese sentiment among Filipinos derives from the country's close historical alliance with the capitalist US, but it also dates back further to the colonial era under Spanish rule.
Beijing has since confirmed there was an incident involving a Chinese and a Filipino vessel but denies it was a "hit-and-run". Characterising it as "an ordinary maritime traffic accident", Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said it was irresponsible for the Philippines to "politicise the incident without verification".
President Duterte is “bleeding political capital”, says author Richard Heydarian.
Some members of Mr Duterte's cabinet have aligned themselves with China's response on the incident. "Just an accident," was the theory of Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana. "Maybe the other side didn't mean to brush against our boat," he said in a televised broadcast on June 19.
After five days of deafening silence following the incident, President Duterte himself also described the collision as simply a "little maritime accident". The two countries are jointly investigating the incident but China has rejected third-party investigation and verification.
Since his talks in April with Mr Xi, Mr Duterte has allowed Chinese vessels to continue fishing in the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), parts of which China is also hoping to claim. However, this was just a verbal agreement between the two leaders -- because "we're friends", as Mr Duterte put it last month -- with no formal documentation.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal nations have sovereign rights to an EEZ, which extends 200 nautical miles from the coastline. A nation can explore and exploit natural resources as well as take steps to conserve any natural resources within that area.
However, following the collision and under huge public pressure from the opposition and many of his supporters, Mr Duterte has now backtracked on his previous statement. China, he declared, can no longer fish in Filipino waters.
"The President will not relinquish our sovereign rights over our country's exclusive economic zone," spokesman Salvador Penelo said on June 27.
Many of the fishermen who depend on the resources of the West Philippine Sea are also strong supporters of Mr Duterte. But from 2009 to 2018, catches in the EEZ have dwindled by approximately 250 to 300 tonnes. Natural gas reserves in the Reed Bank, accounting for about 20% of the fuel used to generate electricity, are also diminishing at an alarming rate.
There has been a long history of tensions between the Philippines and China in these waters. In 2013, Manila presented a case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. It questioned the legitimacy of China's Nine-Dash Line, which claims almost the whole of the South China Sea including large swathes of other countries' EEZs. No one else supports this claim.
The same year the Philippines presented its case to the PCA, China began a land reclamation process on seven South China Sea coral reefs, building permanent structures to strengthen its claims under the almost universally ridiculed Nine-Dash Line. Adm Harry Harris, a former commander of the US Pacific Fleet and current US Ambassador to South Korea, dubbed this process "the Great Wall of Sand."
The PCA tribunal in 2016 ruled in favour of the Philippines, declaring China has no historical claim over the territories marked by the Nine-Dash Line. China predictably ignored the ruling and has since pressed ahead with anti-aircraft and anti-missile structures where it sees fit.
The incident involving the Gem-Ver, as well as President Duterte's about-face on fishery policy in the EEZ raises the question -- how do these recent developments affect the newly established commitments between Manila and Beijing?
Bill Hayton, an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, suggests the underlying issue is "a remarkable amount of ignorance about the law of the sea among the top-level of politicians in the Philippines from the president down."
In an interview with Asia Focus, Mr Hayton said he anticipates "[President Duterte] will stick to his belief that he is getting something out of [aligning with China]", but the real question is "whether [President Duterte] can deliver anything meaningful from that relationship or if the taking is all coming from China".
He urged the Philippines to "think about working with [the US] and its other partners in order to protect its rights".
"China has plenty of spare cash to invest and it's a big market, so -- of course -- Philippine companies are going to do deals with Chinese companies and the government is going to seek investment, but as long as it does so with its eyes open and is aware of all the possible 'catches'."
These "catches" include rates of interest, access, who actually provides the labour and where the profits go, he said, while suggesting the continuation of economic rapprochement between the Philippines and China.
Despite the Duterte administration's warming relations with Beijing, the Philippines still remains an ally with the US under the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) of 1951. The US has remained true to the eight articles outlined by the treaty and has been known to utilise its warships and fighter jets in order to patrol the waters of the South China Sea to "protect the freedom of navigation" in the area.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also vowed, invoking the treaty, that his country will come to the Philippines' aid if "any armed attack" occurs in the contested sea.
However, Mr Lorenzana ordered the treaty to be reviewed at the end of last year. He stated the agreement is "a 67-year-old treaty. Is it still relevant to our national interest? That's what we should look at". He also hopes the review will ultimately come up with a decision "to maintain it, strengthen it, or scrap it".
At the recent Asean Summit in Bangkok, Mr Duterte, along with his Asean counterparts, called for an immediate establishment of a Code of Conduct (CoC) between the 10-country bloc and China in order to avoid further confrontations in the contentious sea.
That's a tall order, given that Asean and China have been talking on and off about the CoC in 2002. Asean foreign ministers last month actually declared themselves pleased that they were close to agreeing on a framework approach to negotiations by the end of this year.
After the summit, Malacañang Palace released a statement announcing the Philippine president's "concern and disappointment" about the delay in negotiations for the CoC. "The faster we finish the process, the more credible Asean and China will be as partners for security and stability," the statement read.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, believes "a compromise [on the South China Sea] is the best outcome but the problem is the starting point".
In order to begin discussions of a compromise, "China's fait accompli in the timeline of its capture of the South China Sea would have to be established, and the CoC between Asean and China would have to codify it", he told Asia Focus.
Dr Thitinan suggests a bilateral compromise between the Philippines and China would be "at a disadvantage [to the Philippines] because China is bigger and more powerful".
However, he adds "the Philippines should seek a CoC through the Asean framework to entice China to come to an agreement." He cites China's ongoing trade war with the US as well as the pushback on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as reasons why China may be tempted to go to the negotiating table.
Mr Duterte's responses to recent developments have only heightened public outrage in the country with many citizens branding his actions to the sinking of the Filipino vessel as "weak".
Critics have even called for his impeachment due to his inability to protect the Philippines' marine wealth, an obligation under Section 2, Article XII of the Constitution.
Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based scholar and author of Asia's New Battlefield: The USA, China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific, sees the change of impeachment as very slim. But Mr Duterte's alliance with China "is running against the grain of public opinion", he says.
The president's close alignment with China is "bleeding political capital and [President Duterte] is nowhere, nowhere as invincible and dominant as he looked just a month ago after the midterm election," he added.
Mr Duterte is "not out but he is down", the author said, and the pro-China policy has become his "Achilles' heel" and one that opposition parties will be scrutinising closely.
Mr Duterte needs all the political capital he can get if he hopes to reform the constitution before the end of his term and the upcoming presidential elections in 2022.
Nevertheless, according to the latest Social Weather Stations poll published last week, Mr Duterte is on track to become the Philippines' most popular leader in the past 33 years since the fall of Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship. He finished the first half of his six-year term with a record net satisfaction rating of 68% in the second quarter, surpassing a previous high of 66% in the January-March period.
Former president Fidel Ramos had a rating of 69% in the second year of his 1992-98 presidency, but his average over six years was just 38% compared to President Duterte who has consistently scored above 50%. Benigno Aquino had an average of 45% during his six-year term, while other former presidents did not even come close.
However, Mr Heydarian says the popularity of Mr Duterte's political faction could be affected during the election season in 2022 due to his comments in favour of Beijing.
Meanwhile, China's militarisation campaign continues unabated.
On June 25, CNN obtained a satellite image showing at least four Chinese J-10 fighter jets deployed on Woody Island (Yongxing, as it's known in China), part of the Paracel Islands. It marked the first time China had stationed aircraft in the contested waters since 2017.
Two weeks ago, the Pentagon also confirmed China tested anti-ship ballistic missiles between the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The missile drills concluded on Wednesday but the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declined to comment on them.
Regardless of what the future holds for the South China Sea, Mr Duterte currently finds himself trying to strike a fine balance between the sentiments of the two global superpowers -- China, the Philippines' newfound friend, and the US, his country's traditional ally.