They say there are neither permanent interests nor permanent friends in politics. It’s also equally true that there are no permanent presidents and policies, especially in the context of the rollercoaster Philippine-China relations.
Amid crucial midterm elections, which serve as a referendum on Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, the Filipino leader is confronting a major crisis in the South China Sea. Since January, an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels, likely belonging to the formidable People’s Liberation Army Maritime Militia Forces, has surrounded the Thitu Island in the Spratlys.
The disputed land feature has been under Philippine occupation since the 1970s, when the Southeast Asian country began to establish an airstrip and station permanent troops and residents on the island. If left unchecked, the brewing conflict could upend Duterte’s years-long effort to reorient the Philippines’ historically tense relations with China.
Even more, the showdown in the South China Sea goes hand-in-hand with widespread fears of a ‘debt trap’ under Chinese infrastructure projects in the Philippines, as Beijing steps up its big-ticket investments in the Southeast Asian country.
Scarborough Shoal Crisis 2.0
Back in 2012, Philippine-China relations took a nosedive, after a Filipino warship and an armada of Chinese paramilitary forces were locked into a months-long standoff in the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
The land feature, located within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone, has been a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen for centuries. For more than a century, dating back to the Spanish era, the Philippines has claimed the shoal as part of its national territory. In fact, it is considered as part of a local municipality based on the Philippine law.
When a Filipino naval vessel sought to apprehend a Chinese fishermen poaching for precious fisheries in the area, it was immediately confronted by a growing number of well-armed Chinese para-military forces.
After weeks long mediation by the Americans, the two sides agreed to a mutual disengagement plan in mind-2012, just for China to maintain its grip on the island since then. What followed was a new nadir in bilateral relations, as the former Benigno Aquino administration in the Philippines decided to take China to court under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The Aquino administration also doubled down on its alliance with the U.S. by welcoming growing American military presence on Philippine soil under the new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The upshot was the most toxic bilateral relationship in Asia, as leaders of both countries shunned formal summits until the ended of the Aquino presidency in 2016.
Similar to his predecessor, Duterte has sought to build robust trade and investment relations with China. Unlike Aquino, however, he has even contemplated the prospect of a strategic partnership with the Asia superpower.
In exchange, the Filipino president has downplayed disputes in the South China Sea, while presenting China as an indispensable partner for national development. Three years into Duterte’s pivot to China, however, he is facing domestic backlash over his Beijing-friendly policies.
One major source of contention is China’s continued militarization of the disputes. Since the beginning of 2019, there have been 657 sightings of and 275 individual Chinese para-military laying a de facto siege on the Philippine-held Thitu Island.
The exact purpose of the tightening siege is not clear, but it likely serves several objectives: It (i) allows China to monitor ongoing maintenance activities on the island; (ii) threaten and intimidate Philippine supply lines and marine surveillance missions in the area, and (iii) prevent the Philippines from occupying and building structures on the nearby Sandy Cay, a low-tide elevation within the territorial sea of Thitu.
Amid growing domestic pressure, the Philippine President warned China, “If you touch it [Thitu Island]…I will tell my soldiers [to] ‘prepare for suicide missions’.” The Philippine government has even gone so far as warning China that it will take the case, including the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague, to the United Nations General Assembly if necessary.
The government’s hardening stance in the South China Sea, however, is unlikely to temper public skepticism towards China. In fact, the latest survey by the Manila-based Social Weather Stations (SWS) shows that only two out of ten Filipinos see China as a trustworthy partner, leaving the Asian powerhouse as the least preferred major external partner among the Philippine public.
Over the past month, critics of the government have stepped up their efforts to question Duterte’s China policy. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, an outspoken and prominent statesman, exposed the provisions of several Chinese infrastructure projects in the Philippines, particularly the Chico River and Kaliwa dam projects.
According to the magistrate, the Philippine government has agreed to place “national patrimony assets”, including natural resources in disputed areas such as Reed Bank, as collateral for Chinese loans. In an event of debt settlement disputes, Carpio argued, a Beijing-based arbitration body could decide to seize Philippine assets.
Amid escalating public criticism Duterte was forced to call for a review of all government contracts with China.
Meanwhile, former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed an International Criminal Court (ICC) communication case against Chinese officials. They accused Beijing of committing crimes against humanity by violating the rights of Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea.
In response to China’s outrage over the legal move, Duterte was helplessly left stating the matter was beyond his control, since the “Philippines is a democratic country and anybody can bring a suit against anybody.”
Eager to rescue the ongoing rapprochement with Beijing, the Filipino president has insisted that China is a “friend” and that “compromise” is the only way forward in the South China Sea. Despite this, the Philippine public is souring on the direction of his foreign policy.