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It is a mistake for the Duterte administration to think that it can separate its maritime dispute with China from issues like trade, investment, and official development assistance, said International Studies Professor Renato Cruz De Castro, a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute.

At the United Nations General Assembly this September, BusinessWorld reported that “President Rodrigo R. Duterte gave his most forceful defense of a 2016 United Nations (UN) ruling favoring the Philippines in a sea dispute with China, in a move that could signal the end of friendly ties with its neighbor.” 

This October, Mr. Duterte, changed his tone in one of his recent COVID-19 addresses and reiterated that the Philippines wants to strike a government-to-government deal with China for COVID-19 vaccines.

This compartmentalizing strategy, which Mr. De Castro calls the “dual-track approach,” won’t work with China. 

“China doesn’t play that game,” he tells BusinessWorld reporter Gillian M. Cortez. “China is a traditional big power; it will act like any big power. It will never deal with us [the Philippines] in an equitable manner.”


Duterte’s policy toward China is a ‘policy of appeasement.’

“He [Mr. Duterte] distanced the Philippines from the United States and pushed the Philippines to the waiting arms of China,” said Mr. De Castro, who cited the current administration’s concessions to China and the delays in the US-Philippine Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which the Aquino administration signed in 2014. “The very essence of President Aquino’s foreign policy of challenging China was unraveled by his successor, President Duterte.”

‘China will literally run over us.’

Multiple surveys show that the majority of Filipinos do not trust China. “Your neighbors are not usually your best friend,” said Mr. De Castro, who characterized China as an expansionist power intent on dominating Asia.  

“When China thinks its territorial integrity is being undermined, China will throw everything off the table,” he said. “Let’s not fool ourselves. China has a goal—that’s maritime expansion. If we happen to be in its path, China will literally run over us.”

An international ruling has to be enforced by countries that have a stake in it.

In an online briefing, Presidential spokesman Harry L. Roque said: “You do not enforce an arbitral ruling …  The assumption in international law is that all countries will comply with their international obligations particularly with the arbitral award because it freely consented to the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal.”

Mr. Roque was wrong, said Mr. De Castro. “International law has to be enforced,” he said. “All naval powers have an interest in the ruling because they don’t want to see the South China Sea transformed into a Chinese lake.” 

Mr. Roque’s interpretation, he continued, is “a justification for inaction, which the Duterte administration is known for when it comes to the West Philippine Sea.”

There are three things that the Duterte administration can do right now, according to Mr. De Castro:

  • The Philippines can file its extended continental shelf claim in the West Philippine Sea. 
  • The Philippines can enforce—not just acknowledge—the arbitral ruling.
  • The Philippines can organize an international coalition of countries that have an interest in enforcing the ruling.

Recorded remotely on October 14. Produced by Nina M. Diaz, Paolo L. Lopez, and Sam L. Marcelo.

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