From balancing to appeasing China: The tales of two presidents

Thinking Beyond Politics
Renato Cruz De Castro

Posted on March 29, 2017

Prior to leaving for his visit to Myanmar on March 19, President Duterte entertained questions from journalists, who asked about China’s reported plan to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal. President Duterte emphatically admitted he could not stop the plans, saying “We cannot stop China from doing (these) things.” Instead, he turned the table on the journalists by asking, “What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) destroyed as a nation.”

President Duterte offered a possible solution to the crisis: “Just keep (the waters) open and do not interfere with our (Philippine) coast guard.” He also dismissed concerns about China’s activities near Benham Rise, despite Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s warnings of Chinese survey ships loitering in the location for month-long periods.

The President appears determined to appease China as it expands its control of the South China Sea. A policy of appeasement involves efforts by a leader of a smaller state to conciliate or “buy off” an expansionist power by making unilateral diplomatic and strategic concessions.

Former President Aquino took a different approach, actively challenging China’s expansion despite its overwhelmingly economic and strategic capabilities. He did this by building up the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) territorial defense capabilities. Why the change in behavior? A significant factor behind the Aquino administration’s efforts, despite the country’s military inadequacies, was the country’s alliance with the United States.

The Aquino administration was aware that no amount of financial resources would enable the Philippines to face an assertive China in the South China Sea. The buildup of the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities was designed for limited deterrence and asymmetric combat, but not for naval warfare. Thus, the military buildup merely complemented the deterrence provided by US forward deployment and bilateral alliances in East Asia. The Aquino administration’s policy of challenging China’s expansion was predicated upon the US’ asserting its position as the dominant naval power in the Pacific area.

The Philippines’ close security ties with the US enabled it to cooperate with other American allies in East Asia such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Japan helped in providing technical and material assistance to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). The Philippine government was able to purchase 12 F/A Golden Eagles fighter planes from South Korea. The Philippines also signed and ratified a Status of Forces Agreement with the Australia to enhance the security cooperation that includes the Coast Watch South project and the joint Maritime Training Activity Lumbas.

By developing these security partnerships, the Aquino administration harnessed these allies’ military know-how and resources against a pressing strategic concern.

President Duterte is undoing the Aquino administration’s balancing policy. His goals are to foster closer economic and diplomatic relations with China while strategically separating the Philippines from the US.

To avoid upsetting Beijing, he announced that the Philippine Navy (PN) would no longer join the US Navy in patrolling the South China Sea. He also wanted US Special Operation Forces supporting the Philippine Army counter-terror missions to withdraw. He ordered the reduction in the numbers of joint Philippine-US military exercises from 28 to about 13, and redirected their focus from territorial defense and maritime security to nontraditional security concerns such as humanitarian assistance and risk reduction, cyber security, anti-terrorism, and counter-narcotics operations. Most significantly, he canceled the PHIBLEX and CARAT joint naval exercises.

In December, Secretary Lorenzana announced that the Philippines would not likely permit the US to launch freedom of navigation patrols from the country. Later, President Duterte responded to reports that China is installing weapons on islands deep inside the Philippines’ EEZ by signifying that he would not protest. President Duterte’s subsequent pronouncements and actions to appease China have consequently triggered a crisis in the Philippine-US alliance.

President Duterte’s pronouncement that he would not stop China from building on a disputed shoal was based on two possible calculations. Firstly, after alienating and antagonizing the Philippines’ only strategic ally, the country has no choice but to accept the inevitable -- China’s building up of an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal that is less than 200 nautical miles from the coast of Luzon. Secondly, appeasing China has its rewards in the form of billions of dollars in deals, including agreements for agricultural exports to China, and loans for infrastructure projects such as railways.

Last week, Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang visited Davao City and witnessed the exchanged of letters between Philippine and Chinese officials on the feasibility studies for infrastructure projects China will be financing. Mr. Wang visited portions of the proposed Davao Coastline and Portland Development Project. He was also briefed on the Davao City Expressway and the Mindanao Railway. He brought with him a donation to the victims of the Surigao earthquake.

Not surprisingly, despite warnings from about the long-term strategic implications of China’s reported plan to construct a monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal, President Duterte was alarmingly resigned -- the price was right!

Renato Cruz De Castro is a professor of International Studies at DLSU and Trustee of the Stratbase-ADR Institute.