"I hope it’s not too late."
President Rodrigo Duterte says that when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing end-August, he would finally raise the 2016 arbitral court ruling, which nullified China’s nine-dash line encroaching on the Philippines exclusive economic zone. If the event indeed transpires, then that puts him on the right track.
What’s clear for now is that such an announcement marks a departure from the President’s typical narrative when discussing the West Philippine Sea, the narrative that says the arbitral ruling must be set aside to improve relations with China that was strained during the previous administration, and hence be “friends” instead of risking war.
Time and again, such foreign policy—which the government calls “independent” but which elsewhere is called defeatist and subservient—has been proven faulty, and the rapid escalation of events in recent months have only shown how much.
In June, on Philippine Independence Day, a Filipino fishing boat and a Chinese trawler figured in a controversial altercation at the Reed Bank. Mass indignation followed when The details of the event became known: The 22 Filipino crew were resting when the collision happened, and were left to drown on high seas.
The President’s subsequent revelation that he and President Xi had a verbal agreement to allow Chinese fisherfolk to fish in the Reed Bank appears only to have made the matter worse.
On the one hand, such an agreement when ratified “will substantially diminish the arbitral award as a self-inflicted blow again to our sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea,” noted Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. On the other hand, it did not at all lead to friendlier relations with China, with Filipino fisherfolk still having to face Chinese presence and intimidation on a regular basis.
More recent developments have only further undermined the idea that the Philippines and China are “friends,” or could at all be friendly; some of the President’s men are themselves now raising their own doubts.
In July, two Chinese warships were spotted at the Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi, while three more were seen in August, according to a military report. “Not an act of friendship” was how Palace spokesperson Salvador Panelo described the presence of such warships in Philippine waters without any coordination with Manila. “We express concern with that kind of incident. Because if they keep on saying that we’re friends, I don’t think this is an act of friendship,” Panelo was quoted saying in a news report.
Chinese warships had passed through the same strait four times since February, noted Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
“I think this is not innocent anymore because this has been happening repeatedly,” the defense chief was quoted saying in another news report. “They can pass through but why don’t they inform us? What’s too difficult about telling us, ‘Hey, we’re passing by.’ That’s all there is to it for us. Why the secrecy?”
Equally as disturbing as the swarm of Chinese vessels in Philippine waters and its West Philippine Sea aggression and militarization is the influx of Philippine offshore gaming operators staffed by workers from China. Some 200,000 have sought special working permits in 2018, numbers from the Bureau of Immigration show. The Department of Tourism meanwhile counts 1.26 million coming into the country for the same year.
Lorenzana has already expressed fears POGOs may shift their operations to spying, following concerns raised by lawmakers that these are sprouting near military headquarters, and even the Senate. Earlier, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon called the influx of Chinese workers a security threat.
Further complicating Duterte’s upcoming Beijing visit—which as things turn could be his biggest foreign policy challenge yet, one that would test both his so-called “independent” policy and his statesmanship skills—are rumblings in the armed forces brought about by his appeasement stance against the blatant bullying of China, and the palpable pressure of public sentiment.
It bears repeating a huge majority of Filipinos oppose Chinese aggression in Philippine waters, as confirmed by a recent Social Weather Stations survey: More than nine in 10 say they believe it is important to regain control of the West Philippine Sea, while almost the same number say it feels wrong to do nothing.
Meanwhile, more than eight in 10 are critical of government inaction on the West Philippine Sea, saying the matter should be brought to the United Nations or any other international organizations, or saying the country should build alliances to help defend its waters.
Chinese acts of aggression in the South China Sea have disrespected the ASEAN members and sparked strong rejections from its members such as Vietnam and Malaysia, threatening escalation to military confrontation. Beijing’s deliberate delaying tactics have delayed the finalization of the Code of Conduct despite the strong clamor of ASEAN states while militarization of Chinese occupied islands continue.
Recent reports of a Chinese ship conducting an oil and gas survey in the Vanguard Bank, waters inside the Vietnamese continental shelf, sparked a tense stand-off involving up to 20 armed vessels from both sides. This is yet another calculated move to seize control of valuable resources in China’s nine-dash claim.
Perhaps the confluence of these factors might have shaped President Duterte’s recent pronouncement that he would finally take up the matter of the arbitral ruling when he visits Beijing at the end of the month. The President might have painted himself into a corner this time. It’s interesting how a head of state can just decide to fly to the head of another state just like that—diplomatic protocols alone takes months, let alone logistical preparations on both sides.
I hope it’s not too late. Whatever happens in the talks with President Xi, a repivoting toward our other allies to enforce a rules-based order may prove more practical and effective in the evolving scenario of the South China Sea.