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Duterte Spars with Generals over His China Policy

Aug 23, 2019

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, arguing that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction over the issue. 

Now, however, he has begun to sing a different tune, signaling a tougher stance in his twilight years in office, especially following the sinking of a Filipino fishing vessel by a suspected Chinese militia vessel in June.  

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 to justify resource-sharing agreements with China in the contested waters. By taking a tougher rhetorical stance, he is precisely seeking to strengthen bilateral relations with Beijing. 

Change in Tone 

During his speech in early August before the influential Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc., Duterte made an astonishing announcement. He promised to raise the arbitral tribunal ruling, which followed a years-long proceedings initiated by Manila but boycotted by Beijing, during his forthcoming meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

“The arbitral ruling, we will talk about [it]…That’s what I’m going to [do in my upcoming visit to] China,” Duterte said. “I’m going to China to talk. Did I not tell you before, that before my term ends, I [would] be talking about the [disputes]?” 

All of a sudden, the Philippine president began adopting a tougher stance against China, his de facto strategic patron, ahead of his fifth visit to Beijing in less than three years. 

A chorus of praise and support, including from critics and prominent statesmen who had favored a more hardline position against China, immediately met the shocking announcement. 

Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, the staunch critic of Duterte’s Beijing-friendly policy who oversaw the Philippines’ legal warfare against China in the past, was ecstatic. 

"Let us salute him and assure him of the support of all Filipinos," the former Philippine top diplomat said after several months-worth of public spat with the Duterte administration.

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 Filipino and English.  

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 reinforce his Beijing-friendly policy. 

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 Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, as well as spokesmen from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) openly criticized either China’s behavior towards or state of bilateral relations with the Philippines.

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.

Most importantly, he accused Chinese warships of switching off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) during their passage in Philippine territorial waters in recent weeks. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) mandates foreign warships to refrain from any activity, which is “prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal state,” while passing through the territorial sea of a foreign nation. 

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 to openly accuse China of “duplicity” and “deception”. 

Meanwhile, Philippine National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon upped the ante by describing the influx of Chinese nationals into the Philippines as a potential national security “threat,  shortly after several Chinese tourists were caught illegally taking pictures in a Philippine naval base.  

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 has] proposed a 60-40 [split of oil development profits]. That’s OK with me, but that could be a later topic if we have time.” The exact details of the deal has yet to become public, but Foreign Secretary Locsin praised Beijing’s drafted joint-exploration agreement as “superior to our own [version], claiming that “[e]verything [is] going well” in terms of negotiating a resource-sharing deal in Reed Bank.

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. 


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