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Foreign Policy

The Reed Bank Collision: Duterte’s China Policy in Crisis

Jul 17 , 2019

On June 9th, just as the Philippines and China marked their Friendship Day, a near-fatal collision took place in the contested South China Sea. A suspected Chinese militia vessel reportedly rammed an anchored Filipino fishing boat (F/B GIMVER) with 22 crewmen on board.

To make matters worse, the Chinese vessel, Yuemaobinyu 4221, left behind the Filipino fishermen drowning in the sea. If not for nearby Vietnamese fishermen, who rescued the victims, there would have certainly been high fatalities. The collision, which took place in the thick of the night, was not exposed until three days later, marking the Philippines’ Independence Day.

What followed was not only a potential diplomatic crisis between the two neighbors, but also a political maelstrom, which engulfed the Philippine government. Desperate to justify his Beijing-friendly diplomacy, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte downplayed the incident as a ‘little maritime accident.’

But his response, following days of deafening silence, only reinforced public anger against China, unleashing a chorus of criticism from across the political establishment and beyond. This marks Duterte’s greatest political crisis yet, which could torpedo his rapprochement with Beijing.

Taking a Hardline

The crisis began in earnest following strong condemnation from Philippine defense establishment against the suspected Chinese vessel involved in the incident. Contrary to Duterte’s China-leaning diplomacy, the Philippine military and senior defense officials have consistently maintained a critical stance on Beijing’s expanding strategic footprint across the South China Sea.

Widespread outrage came on the heels of Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s public condemnation (June 12) “in the strongest terms” against Chinese vessel’s “cowardly action”. The outspoken defense chief “denounce[ed] the actions of the Chinese fishing vessel for immediately leaving the incident scene”, which meant “abandoning the 22 Filipino crewmen to the mercy of the elements.”

The Philippine military also took a strident line. The spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Command, which is tasked with defending Philippine claims in the South China Sea, described the incident as a “hit and run” incident, which was “far from accidental”.

Within hours, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr joined the fray, describing the incident as “contemptible and condemnable”. Thanking Vietnam for rescuing the drowning fishermen, he even signaled a potential shift in the Philippines’ strategic policy.

“Vietnam's rescue will be the basis of enhanced Vietnam-[Philippine] military cooperation [in the future],” said the Philippine chief diplomat, implying closer bilateral strategic cooperation in the contested South China Sea.

Under the previous Benigno Aquino administration (2010-2016), Manila forged a de facto alliance with Hanoi against Beijing. The two Southeast Asian countries increasingly coordinated their diplomatic posturing within multilateral organizations, expanded defense cooperation, and even contemplated join legal warfare against China.

Upon assumption of power, however, Duterte ditched Hanoi in favor of closer ties with Beijing. For him, the Philippines should instead prioritize expanded economic cooperation with China at all cost, even if this means downplaying maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

So far, Duterte has visited China four times, while Chinese President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to visit Manila in more than a decade last November. The Filipino leader has only visited Hanoi once, while Manila is yet to host a state visit from Vietnamese leaders.

Officials in Beijing, however, were quick to downplay the incident as an “ordinary maritime [traffic] incident”. Far from apologetic, the Chinese foreign ministry officials claimed, without providing any corroborating evidence, that the Chinese vessel, Yuemaobinyu 4221 couldn’t save drowning Filipino fishermen because it was allegedly “besieged by 7 or 8 Filipino boats”.

The Philippine Navy immediately struck back, with Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad maintaining that, based on radar signals, it was clear that the Filipino vessel "was rammed" while it "was anchored”, and thus it was “not a normal maritime accident". He also lashed out at the Chinese vessel for abandoning Filipino fishermen: “What kind of person are you if you do that?”

Damage Control

Following days of silence, Duterte chose to air his position during a high profile speech (June 17) before the Philippine Navy. In a deliberate attempt to stave off a diplomatic crisis with Beijing, he chose to contradict the country’s defense and military officials’ position on the incident.

Much to the chagrin of the Philippine public, the Filipino president dismissed the incident as a “little maritime accident”, effectively echoing China’s position against the testimonies of the Filipino fishermen as well as the AFP. Calling for an investigation instead, Duterte said the "only thing we can do is wait and give the other party [China] the right to be heard.”

In response, Jonel Insigne, the captain of the sunk Filipino vessel, complained to the media (in Tagalog) how he was “saddened with what our beloved president said, it’s like he just ignored our boat getting hit, as if it’s just a trivial incident since no one died.”

The marooned and traumatized fishermen captured public imagination, reinforcing simmering anger at China and dismay with Duterte’s soft-pedaling on the South China Sea disputes. As the owner of the sunken ship, Felix dela Torre, complained, “I feel like we’re slaves of China. It’s like we have no rights in our own territories.”

Prominent opposition figures such as Vice President Leni Robredo criticized Duterte for his “passive” China policy, calling on the government to “do what is needed to defend the dignity of our nation.” She called for the prosecution of the Chinese vessel’s crewman in Philippine courts.

Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio, a leading voice on the South China Sea disputes, openly claimed that the collision was “highly likely” an intentional maneuver by a Chinese militia vessel.

He directly blamed Chinese authorities for the incident, warning of the “start of a new ‘gray zone’ offensive by China to drive away Filipino fishing vessels” from the South China Sea.

Experts have warned of the growing role of the Chinese militia as the tip of the dagger of China’s so-called “people’s war at sea” strategy across adjacent waters. Camouflaged as civilian fishing vessels, they often receive fuel subsidy, electronic communication equipment, para-military training, and implicit or explicit protection from Chinese authorities and maritime forces.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a prominent independent senator, went so far as calling on the Philippine government to invoke its Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States in order to rein in China’s expanding footprint in the area. The U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim, meanwhile, raised the stakes by claiming that Washington could intervene militarily in response to Chinese militia forces’ attack on Philippine vessels.

Duterte, however, has stubbornly resisted calls for a tougher stance against China, desperate to rescue his burgeoning relations with Beijing. Yet, he is facing growing public anger and even criticism among his own allies. Sacking some of his cabinet members will likely fail to convince the Philippine public and much of defense establishment vis-à-vis the wisdom of his Beijing-leaning diplomacy. As he enters his twilight years in office, Duterte will face growing domestic resistance to any sustained rapprochement with China.

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