Analysts cite Duterte’s options and China’s odds in sea row

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte attends a South Korea-Philippines business forum hotel in Seoul on June 5, 2018. Duterte is in Seoul for a three-day visit to discuss ways to bolster economic and other cooperation between the two countries. / AFP PHOTO / Jung Yeon-je

IN THE SECOND of three presidential debates in 2016, then-candidate Rodrigo R. Duterte asked contender Grace Poe, by way of testing her relative inexperience in her five-plus years in public office, what she would do in a Chinese attack on the Philippine Coast Guard.

Ms. Poe answered at that forum in Cebu (posted on YouTube by Bloomberg TV Philippines) that she would summon the military chief and the head of the Transportation Department, being the mother agency of the Coast Guard, and engage other nations with whom the Philippines observes such commitments as the Visiting Forces Agreement:

Ang kailangan natin gawin ay siyempre ang Presidente, kailangan bumangon agad….Mabilis na babangon ang Presidente at itatawag ang head ng AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) at ng head ng DoTC (Transportation Department), sapagkat nandiyan napapailalim ang Coast Guard….Ngayon, meron tayong Visiting Forces Agreement. Meron tayong kasunduan sa ibang bansa kung papaano tayo dedepensahan. Totoo, ayaw natin umasa sa kanila….Kung ano ang pwede natin gawin sa pagkakataon na yun, kailangan ay depensahan natin ang ating bansa. Pero ang totoo, kailangan din natin ng tulong ng ibang komunidad para tayo madepensahan. Pero hindi nangangahulugan na hindi natin palalakasin ang ating military.”

Mr. Duterte won the presidency that year and was immediately confronted by this issue of the Philippines’ maritime tension with China which, as some critics have pointed out, exposed his own relative inexperience in an arena much broader than the national scene, geopolitics.

Since then, the Hague arbitral court ruled in the Philippines’ favor in its dispute over Chinese expansion toward the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Mr. Duterte sought to revive and nurture the country’s relations with China — and also sought to alienate traditional ally the United States. In the course of this foreign policy, Chinese militarization has advanced in the disputed South China Sea, prompting other world powers to step up pressure on China, while Filipino fishermen contended with the gut issue of recovering their threatened livelihood amid the pursuing Chinese coast guard in our EEZ.

The criticism against Mr. Duterte, not all of it by personalities identified with the opposition Liberal Party, has in turn led to this issue acquiring a political color. And further complicating this matter, as analysts see it, is Mr. Duterte’s raising the specter of war.

Mr. Duterte won the presidency that year and was immediately confronted by this issue of the Philippines’ maritime tension with China which, as some critics have pointed out, exposed his own relative inexperience in an arena much broader than the national scene, geopolitics.

“The President constantly talks about war,” said foreign policy expert Richard J. Heydarian of De La Salle University (DLSU) in a June 6 interview for this article. “That is part of a deliberate attempt to lure false choice for the Filipino people. To say we have only two options is completely devoid of realities on the ground.”

“We know that China is the last country to want war in the South China Sea,” Mr. Heydarian said. “First and foremost, China relies on stability in the South China Sea as (its) oil and gas pass through the South China Sea. Any war will affect China’s trade and strategic interests.”

“The moment they declare war, (this) will immediately alienate every other country that has not seen it (China) as an aggressive power. All these fence-sitters will now consider aligning with the US and the rivals of China. The moment China engages with the United States, this will be used as a pretext (by the US) to also step (up its) military presence in the area,” Mr. Heydarian also said.

He further pointed out that China “wants to be a regional leader. Being a regional leader is all about legitimacy and authority. It’s not about brute force. The moment China is seen as an aggressive force, China will lose legitimacy and authority. And China’s bid to become the center for East Asian architecture will come to an end.”

Also sought for this article, defense analyst and Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies fellow Jose Antonio A. Custodio noted how “countries as far away as Europe have decided to participate in showing the flag and sailing through the South China Sea. Now these are very powerful countries with very capable militaries which in fact, from a maritime and naval dimension, outmatch that of China. Hence, China will be hard-pressed to proclaim its ownership of the area when navies steam through these waterways with impunity.”

As this story was written in June, US bombers had reportedly flown by Chinese defense installations and occupied islands in the South China Sea, on the heels of French ships also sailing by the disputed waters the previous month. France and Britain have agreed to sail its warships there, following warnings by US Defense Secretary James Mattis of Beijing’s “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea.

“Global powers are doing that to prevent China from redefining the world order and international system of relations that grew out of the experience in World War Two,” Mr. Custodio said. “That is not merely doing it for the Philippines’ behalf but in order to protect the accepted system of international norms where unilateral declarations of ownership and control especially of large areas is not acceptable.”

Indeed, a report last May (and released in June) by the Congressional Research Service of the US Congress had articulated the “US position on territorial and EEZ disputes in the Western Pacific (including those involving China)” to include the following “elements”: that “the United States takes no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the ECS (East China Sea) and SCS” — a position that, to be sure, is also qualified in the report — and that “the United States supports the principle of freedom of seas, meaning the rights, freedoms, and uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations in international law. The United States opposes claims that impinge on the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea that belong to all nations.”

The US pressure on China has been widely regarded as an effort to catch up from its stance in this region during the previous Obama administration.

“We see that when the Chinese started the reclamation in 2013, for two years, everyone was in a state of shock and awe,” Mr. Heydarian said. “Even the United States did not react, in the Obama administration. And I think it will forever dent President Obama’s administration. The US was an absolute failure in the first years. Only recently did they take up the cudgel, and, in reality, the US on their own has not been very effective against China. It has actually given China an excuse that any militarization is defensive.”

The report to the US Congress last May is quite notable for its tenor in describing China’s strategy in the South China Sea: “Some observers characterize China’s approach for asserting and defending its territorial claims in the ECS and SCS as a ‘salami-slicing’ strategy that employs a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.”

China’s “incremental actions” may well refer to developments in the South China Sea up to this point, notably Chinese installations last year, as monitored by Washington think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

The US pressure on China has been widely regarded as an effort to catch up from its stance in this region during the previous Obama administration.

“During Duterte’s administration, China’s militarization has seen an acceleration,” Mr. Heydarian said. “Only now do we see the full weaponization of islands and…, contested land features. In the past few months alone this year, we have seen China deploying electronic jamming equipment, surface-to-air missile sites, anti-cruise ballistic missiles, and nuclear-capable bombers, and likely soon, they will also deploy jet fighters as they have said consistently in the past few weeks.”

He added: “Under Duterte, it seems the Chinese are also expanding their strategic footprint in the Benham Rise. We’re facing Chinese ships in the Eastern and Western coastlines.” This, despite recent efforts by the Duterte government to keep watch over what his Executive Order No. 25 now officially calls the Philippine Rise.

Mr. Heydarian took note of how other countries in the region are dealing with China. “We look to Malaysia,” he said. “In the past two decades since Mahathir resigned in (2002), Malaysia adopted a policy where China will not creep into Malaysian claimed waters and will not claim land features in the South China Sea. They (the Malaysians) have been completely disproven. That is why when Mahathir returned (to power), he is now taking a proper stance on China both in Chinese investment, and then of course questioning the necessity to remain quiet when China is clearly undermining Malaysia’s interests in the South China Sea.”

The analyst also cited Vietnam and Indonesia as “countries (that) are stepping up their efforts” before China. Vietnam, which is no stranger to conflict with China, is a case in point, going by AMTI’s June 13 report (as of this article’s writing) on Vietnam’s dredging activity at Ladd Reef in the Spratlys.

At the same time, “Vietnam has issued strong words as it has called for the removal of these Chinese military installations,” Mr. Custodio for his part said. “Indonesia also has acted assertively against Chinese encroachments. It is only the Philippines through the Duterte administration which is doing what Beijing wants.”

“As long as the Duterte administration remains in position, it is expected that the Philippines will not do anything to displease China,” Mr. Custodio said, adding that “the Philippines has broken ranks with its ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) partners on the matter of Chinese aggressive expansionism in the South China Sea.”

Said Mr. Heydarian: “We are now alone as one of the major claimant states that is hoping that by being meek towards China we’re gonna get their mercy. I have yet to see the mercy.”

“This is a self-inflicted appeasement policy vis-a-vis China,” said professor Renato Cruz de Castro of DLSU’s International Studies Department who was also sought for comment. “The other side would consider you weak and not respect you and, in fact, deal with you with utmost contempt. That’s what’s happening right now.”

“We should use diplomacy to create a coalition of states that of course would legally and diplomatically challenge China. That is our approach. We have to rely on that,” Mr. De Castro also said.

Even without a formal coalition, there is a broad understanding — among the global powers and ASEAN’s more assertive members — that weighs against China’s expansion. The need now is for the coordination of this common interest, with or without the Philippine initiative in this effort.

“The US should put forward a maritime security initiative where (it) will help (the) Philippines, Vietnam, and other counties to develop their capabilities,” Mr. Heydarian said. “(This) has to be multilateral — it’s important all major powers with interests in preserv(ing) order and the status quo to help the community. You have the Australians, and the Japanese and Indians have conducted military drills as well. Britain and France have sent ships as well. Remember, France, Britain, and US are all members of the UN Security Council. Russia, by the way, is not taking China’s side. Russia is helping Vietnam in developing their submarines and maritime capabilities. China is against four members of the UN Security Council. The message here is it’s not China versus US. Its China versus the international community.”

Mr. Duterte, however, sees the geopolitical situation differently. Amid the US pressure on China, he said, on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, that “even the United States has shown a little bit of apprehension” toward China.

He added that “if you go against China, Russia will join the fray.”

For his part, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano asserted that Mr. Duterte, “even before he won, knows independent foreign policy. He understands geopolitics.”

And to criticisms of the Philippine position on the South China Sea, Mr. Duterte said: “(W)hat do you want? What kind of pugnacious attitude would I have to adopt to convince the Chinese to get out?”

“It’s completely misguided and it’s ignorant to imply that our choices here are submission and war,” Mr. Heydarian said. “There is a wide spectrum of strategies the Philippines can adopt. We should upgrade our security pacts with America. We can upgrade our maritime capabilities with India, Australia, and Japan.”

He added: “The reality is that, (al)though Duterte has not been a huge advocate of deterrence with China, the AFP has been very clear that their duty is to protect our territorial sovereignty. You have this kind of dissonance with Philippine foreign policy. We need internal checks that the Executive doesn’t undermine our national interest.”

On the other hand, the DFA has been criticized for what Mr. Custodio describes as its “obfuscating game.”

“It claims it has done a lot to protest what China is doing when in fact it has no previous documents to prove that it did protest,” he said. “In fact, while it goes through the motions to unwillingly protest, it has accelerated internal moves to undertake joint operations with China knowing full well that this will put the Philippines at a great disadvantage as this is tacit recognition of Chinese suzerainty over the area.”

In a press conference on June 14, when this article was being written, Mr. Cayetano maintained that the Philippines was standing firm on its sovereignty.

“I’m assuring you that we’re taking all diplomatic action,” Mr. Cayetano said. “May (We sent a) note verbale, may verbal protest, may written protest, may demarche. So iba-iba ’yung paraan ng (we have taken different steps in terms of) diplomatic action. Meron ding pong minsan ’yung (Sometimes we seek an) inquiry. Ngayon ang sinasabi natin (Now, what we have been saying) from the start that I took over, we do not believe in megaphone diplomacy or microphone diplomacy. We will do our work. We will get the results we want. We have the same objective as past administrations to secure our national territory and protect our sovereign rights. But we will not announce to you every single time we do something.”

Mr. Heydarian, in our interview, had recommended that “We can openly threaten China to embarrass them with the arbitration award. The nine-dash-line doctrine is increasingly disappearing from Chinese diplomatic lingo. They cannot defend it anymore as it was equivocally struck down by arbitration. They are using a different doctrine. So the arbitration award is a continued source of leverage.”

But on that matter, Mr. Cayetano said he had consulted a number of experts who advised him, “’Sir, tignan niyo ’yung sinubmit niyo sa arbitration award. Hindi niyo naman pina-define na nasa EEZ ang Scarborough. Ang sinabi niyo lang, traditional fishing ground.’ So bakit dati hinihuli natin ang Chinese at Vietnamese? Ngayon hindi lang nawala ang control, nasa award pa tuloy na it’s traditional fishing ground of both.” (Sir, look at what you submitted for arbitration. You did not ask that Scarborough [Shoal] be defined as part of the EEZ. You just [cited it as] traditional fishing ground. So why did we even apprehend the Chinese and the Vietnamese [in the past]? Now, not only did we lose control, it’s even in the [ruling] that it’s traditional fishing ground for both.)

“It’s a complex, legal (matter). But this is being brought out by the legal experts sa atin (among us),” the country’s top diplomat continued.

“Pero hindi ibig sabihin na inaatras natin kung kanino ’yun. Kung sasabihin natin, halimbawa, ni Willard, kotse ni Willard ’yun sabi ko kotse ko. Sasabihin ko hindi ako makikipag-usap kay Willard kung ang sasabihin na lang niya ay kotse niya ’yun. At sabihin niya rin, ‘Hindi ako makikipag-usap kay Alan kung sasabihin na lang na kotse mo ’yun.’ Kung sasabihin niyo, ‘Willard, Alan, huwag kayo magbago ng stand ninyo pero mag-usap kayo kung pwede MWF si Willard may gamit, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, ako may gamit.’” (But it doesn’t mean we are withdrawing [the matter as to] who it [e.g. Scarborough] belongs to. If we say, for example, Willard says he owns the car that I say is mine. I will say I won’t talk to Willard if all he’’ll insist is that it’s his car. And he’ll also say, ‘I won’t talk to Alan if all he says is it’s [his] car.’ And if you say, ‘Willard, Allan, don’t change your stand but talk among yourselves if it’s possible that MWF [Monday-Wednesday-Friday], Willard will use [the car], Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, I’ll have the car.’”)

“Ngayon, kung ako may control, may talo ako doon. So sasabihin ko, ‘Willard, bakit ko pagagamit ko ito three times a week nasa akin?Pero kung siya hindi in control, hindi ba mas maganda na pansamatala, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, nasa kanya. Kaso sa wala at all.” (Now, if I had control, I’d still lose. So I’ll say, ‘Willard, why will I let this [car be used] three times a week that I have it?’ But if he is not in control, wouldn’t it be better that for the time being, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, he has it. Better than nothing at all.)

“President Xi (Jinping) and President Duterte agreed na mahirap na umatras sa posisyon ang bawat bansa (that it would be hard for each of the countries staking a claim to withdraw their position). Ang Vietnam, Malaysia, hindi sila aatras sa kanilang posisyon. Ang Pilipinas hindi aatras sa kanyang posisyon. Ang China hindi aatras.”

“So that’s why they have to answer it that way because they never agreed to give up their position at this point in time. But ang sinasabi ng China (as China would say), look at our history. For 40 years, we negotiated boundary disputes on land and after 40 years, most of them have been resolved, so why can’t we talk and resolve here?”

Relations between the Philippines and China, which are now hinged on this unresolved maritime tension, are being watched by this country’s sectors as well as by the citizenry, among whom the polls show China enduring a problematic regard. But with its long experience with adversity and resistance, the nation carries on, regardless of government. — R.S.Torre with interviews by Arjay L. Balinbin, Dane Angelo M. Enerio, and Camille A. Aguinaldo