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Duterte’s Perilous China Gambit

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The deployment of 220 Chinese vessels to the Julian Felipe Reef (aka Whitsun Reef), which lies in the Spratly Islands, well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has once again alerted Southeast Asian nations to China’s ever-growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Criticizing this unilateral, aggressive act, Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana called on the Chinese ships to back off, claiming that they are violating his nation’s rights under international maritime law. Lorenzana stated that “the vessels have encroached on the Philippines’ sovereign territory” and that their presence is “a clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”

ASEAN Myanmar
A satellite image of Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/NASA

While the Chinese vessels are unlikely to heed Lorenzana’s call, the incident is a grim reminder of the fact that the region is underpinned by a very thin strategic equilibrium and a fragile rules-based regional order that is vulnerable to China’s unabated hegemonic actions. The Philippines does not have sufficient military capabilities to deter China. President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy flip-flops on the Philippines’ longstanding military alliance with the United States makes Manila even more vulnerable to the Chinese military threat. Duterte’s February 2020 decision (retracted in June), to terminate the U.S.-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and his February 2021 statement asking the U.S. pay up if it wants to keep the VFA active, are telltale signs that all is still not well between Manila and Washington. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is supposed to deal with such challenges at the multilateral diplomatic level, also appears unprepared for such eventualities.

Even at the regional level, neither Indonesia’s limited politico-military countermeasures nor the Philippines’ efforts to bandwagon with China have yielded any substantively positive outcome to the South China Sea dispute.

Even after winning the legal case against China on the South China Sea issue at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, Duterte, who took office shortly after the arbitral award was handed down, did not pursue the matter, and Manila decided to bandwagon with Beijing, sidestepping the Aquino government’s more confrontational approach. Five years down the line, Duterte’s desperate attempt to make the Philippines a very good friend of China is at an existential crossroad, due to China’s non-responsive and non-reciprocal moves, combined with negligible international support and a stalled dialogue between China and the ASEAN over a binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

The South China Sea issue has taken a dramatic turn over the past few months, with China’s assertive actions reaching an all-time high level. Alongside its “salami slicing” strategy, executed through island reclamation and militarization, China is making incremental domestic institutional changes to strengthen its forces on all fronts.

While the People’s Liberation Army Navy is already striving to get leaner and meaner, and to acquire A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) capabilities in Southeast Asian waters, the newly passed Coast Guard Law gives the Chinese coastguards the authority to launch attacks on a foreign ship or any such alien object which intrudes within China’s expansive “nine-dash line” maritime claim. These developments pose a direct challenge to the territorial sovereignty of countries in the region, particularly the claimant states: the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.

Many of China’s assertive activities are carried out in other claimants’ EEZs and territorial waters. This is a part of China’s efforts to consolidate its claims. Among all the South China Sea claimants, the Philippines and Vietnam have been at the receiving end of most of China’s unilateral actions.

While this is not the last time that China has consolidated its claims by encroaching into other countries’ EEZs, what is alarming is that China is getting more aggressive in its efforts. It is crucial to not overlook the sheer number of Chinese vessels that are currently present in the Philippines’s EEZ. This demonstrates an attempt on the part of China to intimidate and bully the Philippines, which is not as close a military partner of the U.S. as it was before Duterte’s election in 2016.

These moves are also in line with China’s then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s infamous statement at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in 2010, to the effect that “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is just a fact.” Clearly, China knows that the smaller countries of the region have no option but to live with this reality unless they decide to make that leap of faith and join military cooperation arrangements led by the U.S., and its partners and allies.

These recurring developments raise doubts about the validity of China’s commitment to maintaining the status quo in the South China Sea, negotiating a Code of Conduct (even though it will be legally non-binding), and making efforts to reconcile differences with the Southeast Asian claimants. This also indicates that for China, territorial disputes rank very high in its list of strategic priorities.

China’s unchecked assertiveness, overlooking even policy responses of its neighbors such as the Philippines, makes new minilateral mechanisms such as the Quad particularly relevant. If China continues to take an aggressive posture in the South China Sea, it would likely push countries towards joining other “like-minded” countries in standing up to Beijing. Strong signals are emerging to suggest that the Biden administration is committing itself to re-establish stronger contacts with allies, partners, and old friends in the Indo-Pacific. The eagerness to restore ties with the Philippines, one of America’s oldest Asian military partners, is also witnessed among some of Biden administration officials. The issue of freedom of navigation and the South China Sea figure prominently in the new administration’s Asia and Indo-Pacific policies.

The onus to engage other responsible stakeholders, however, lies with Duterte, whose sustained efforts to reconcile differences with China are also being questioned due to China’s aggressive postures and failed Belt and-Road investments. The apparent failure of Duterte’s China policy demonstrates that China is not going to differentiate between friends and foes when it comes to its South China Sea claims. Beijing will do whatever it must to reach its goal of complete “modernization” by 2050.

The arrogance with which Yang Jiechi addressed his American counterparts at the recently concluded Alaska meeting, not only stands in complete contrast with China’s traditional approach toward the U.S.; it also hints that China’s intrusion in the Philippines is not going to be just a one-off incident, and that Manila (and the rest of Southeast Asia’s governments) will have to brace themselves for many more such episodes in future.

This article was first published in The Diplomat on 23 March 2021.

Last Updated: 25/03/2021