Ahead of his upcoming visit to Beijing, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared a major break in his policy towards China.
In a marked departure from his previous position, the Filipino leader vowed to raise the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague against China. In return, Beijing has made it clear that it categorically rejects the arbitration award, which questioned China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea, as still ‘null and void
In his first year in office, Duterte decided to “set aside” the arbitration award amid rapprochement with China. He argued that insisting on the arbitration award and confronting China would risk escalation, if not suicidal conflict with the Asian juggernaut. Beijing has flatly rejected the award as ‘null and void
Now, however, he has begun to
Upon closer examination, however, it’s doubtful that Duterte will significantly recalibrate his China-friendly policy. More likely, he is trying to hit two birds with one stone, namely to appease his critics, especially China hawks in the military, as well as
Change in Tone
During his speech
“The arbitral ruling, we will talk about [it]…That’s what I’m going to
All of a sudden,
A chorus of praise and support, including from critics and prominent statesmen
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario,
"Let us salute him and assure him of the support of all Filipinos," the former Philippine top diplomat said after
Senator Panfilo Lacson, an independent statesman who called on Manila to solicit American support against China, was equally relieved. “It should have been done earlier. We need to discuss this thoroughly. So it’s perfect timing since there will be a meeting with President President Xi Jinping…” he said in a mixture of
Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, however, was quick to raise doubts over Duterte’s announcement. "There is no final date yet. I will be talking to the Chinese ambassador and finalize the agenda," he said, clarifying that a meeting between Filipino and Chinese leaders is yet to be pinned down during Duterte’s visit in late-August to early-September.
Far from altering his strategic approach, the Filipino leader is most likely adopting a tougher rhetoric to
Keeping Critics and US at Bay
On one hand, it’s a calculated rhetorical shift amid rising criticism among top Filipino generals against China. In recent weeks, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, National Security Advis
Lorenzana, for instance, has openly accused China of “bullying” the Philippines in the contested waters, criticizing its harassment of Filipino fishermen, de facto seizure of Manila-claimed Scarborough Shoal, swarming of Philippine-held islands in the Spratlys, and unilateral deployment of research vessels to Philippine waters.
The Philippine defense chief implied that Chinese vessels may have engaged in illegal activities while deliberately switching off their AIS. As a result, the AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo went so far as
Meanwhile, Philippine National Security
By signaling a tougher stance against China, Duterte is likely seeking to assuage the Philippine defense establishment, which has shown remarkable independence of thought and action.
The Filipino president, who has actively blocked American plans to establish missile defense systems on Philippine soil with China in view, is still fully committed to improving relations with Beijing.
By raising the arbitration award, he is likely seeking to justify resource-sharing agreements in the South China Sea, particularly in areas where China has ‘traditional fishing rights’ per international law. Duterte will also likely leverage the UNCLOS provisions on resource-sharing to justify joint oil exploration with China in the contested energy-rich Reed Bank, which falls within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
As Duterte proudly announced recently: “[China
In short, Duterte is leveraging a rhetorical shift to reinforce his strategic pivot to China, both appeasing his generals as well as justifying potentially game-changer resource-sharing deals with Beijing.