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The Philippines Has Given Up On The South China Sea

May 2, 2017

Via Chinese MND.

Manila and Beijing are carrying out an elaborate transaction to secure the latter’s claim over the entire South China Sea. Since assuming office President Duterte has repeatedly made comments excusing China’s actions over the body of water as he seeks better commercial ties with the Philippines’ largest trade partner.

The recent ASEAN Summit from April 28 to 29 was the latest venue where this pattern played out. An important communique drafted by Manila didn’t mention island building activities or the July 2016 ruling by the Hague that invalidated China’s historical claims over the contested waters.

Even before meeting ASEAN heads of state Duterte told local journalists it was pointless to criticize China about the maritime dispute with its neighbors. “Who can pressure China? [The] US?” the President said.

The Duterte administration’s coziness with China was on full display this week in Davao, the former mayor’s hometown and bailiwick. Three PLAN vessels arrived on the last weekend of April and docked at Sasa Wharf as part of a three-day goodwill visit. The PLAN’s warships left on May 2.

The ships included one guided missile destroyer, one frigate, and a replenishment vessel. The flotilla’s destination was somewhat obscured by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND). It announced a resupply mission in the Western Pacific on the day the ships arrived in Davao and then publicized the official visit the following day.

On Monday, May 1, Duterte was personally received aboard the destroyer Chang Chun after arriving via helicopter. Filipino journalists were prohibited from accompanying his entourage and had to remain at the pier. The President later mentioned the possibility of joint exercises between the Philippine Navy and the PLAN in the Sulu Sea, where piracy and terrorism are constant headaches for the authorities.

Via Manila Bulletin.

The PLAN’s sudden visit to Davao a day after the ASEAN Summit is not a coincidence. For months now Duterte has steered his administration’s foreign policy towards appeasing Beijing. During a state visit to the Chinese capital in October 2016 Duterte told his hosts that his country is now aligned with them and Moscow, for some reason.

“In this venue, your honors…I announce my separation from the United States,”  Duterte announced to Xi Jinping.

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he said in English. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world–China, Philippines, and Russia.” Duterte returned home with billions of dollars in promised aid and business deals.

The arrival of the PLAN in Davao this week follows another recent naval appearance. A Russian Varyag-class cruiser docked at Manila’s South Harbor near the Philippine Coast Guard’s headquarters on April 20 as a diplomatic gesture.

Despite Manila’s new tilt toward Beijing there’s growing evidence of a rift between the President’s office and the armed forces. On April 23 Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana paid a visit to Pag-asa Island, the largest among the nine geographical features claimed by Manila in its West Philippine Sea. The remote island supports an airstrip and a small garrison. This came weeks after Lorenzana claimed the PLAN were conducting survey missions on Benham Rise, an immense coral reef in the Philippine Sea, forcing Duterte to insist on renewed vigilance over the country’s sea borders.

According to the author and political scientist Richard Heydarian cooperating with Beijing is a personal initiative of Duterte while the armed forces and the foreign ministry are eager to preserve ties with Washington, DC, whom the President distrusts. Other than a war on drugs, the Duterte administration doesn’t seem to have a credible national security platform at a time when a rival state is trying to overwhelm the Philippines.

The military, for example, are carrying out a modernization program from the previous government and have no large acquisitions aside from non-lethal equipment delivered by South Korea and Japan. Chinese officials, on the other hand, are trying to win over Duterte with friendly gestures–like the PLAN visit, where he was given a cap–and promises of billion-dollar investments for Davao City.

The endgame, of course, is to have a pliant head of state who can give Beijing useful concessions where it matters most: the high seas.

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