In less than a year Manila has succeeded in building stronger ties with Beijing as part of a strategy led by President Rodrigo Duterte, who visited the Chinese capital last October and declared fealty to his host’s “ideological flow.”
The goal, of course, is straightforward enough. China is already the Philippines’ largest trade partner, followed by Japan and the US, but its actions in the South China Sea risk a regional war with unimaginable consequences. By mending relations with China the threat it poses diminishes and Manila can even solicit aid and foreign investment.
But this approach may not be as clear cut as it sounds. It’s now obvious the Duterte administration’s China stance is at odds with the rest of the Philippine government and even domestic policy. Yet turning away from China again, or insisting on sovereignty over disputed waters, could have serious implications for the rest of the Philippines.
During an evening press conference on July 25, on the same day he was scheduled to deliver the annual State of the Nation Address or SONA, the President discussed a wide range of issues. But Duterte didn’t mince words on where he stands regarding the West Philippine Sea’s annexation. Switching from the vernacular to English, he explained how big a pickle the country might be in if the Philippines doesn’t play along with China’s own goals.
“I’m not prepared to go to war,” he said. “…they [China] have state of the art weapons and they have missiles now pointed at us. It will reach Metro Manila in seven minutes.”
Duterte’s claim that Chinese missiles are aimed at Manila wasn’t substantiated by any reports in the following days. Even speculating on what these missiles are–whether launched from land, by ship, or plane–is an exercise in puzzlement. But it did confirm the many risks the Philippines must live with now that Chinese artificial islands are militarized. Duterte’s latest remarks concur with an earlier admission in May that Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened him with war if he dared insist on Philippine rights over the contested waters for oil exploration.
It’s isn’t surprising then how the Foreign Ministers of both countries established a working relationship for energy joint ventures in the South China Sea. Whether the Philippines wants to or not, it must now serve as China’s willing partner under the guise of cooperation.
The irony is Manila can’t back away from its current pro-China stance unless it’s prepared to risk Beijing’s wrath, which can manifest via sanctions on Philippine exports, harassment of Filipino fishermen in the high seas, airspace violations, travel restrictions, negative press, all of which can impact the Southeast Asian archipelago’s economy.
Another underlying reason for seeking this new pattern of compromise is Manila’s almost total inability to protect its borders. Despite the ambitious scope of the 2012 AFP Modernization Act passed during the Aquino administration, the overall strength of the armed forces hasn’t improved.
This is apparent in two theaters: the ongoing battle against Islamists in Marawi and the total breakdown of peace talks with Communist rebels, who subscribe to Maoism. In the former crisis the military’s preference for and reliance on US largess is alive once more. The US, in turn, has been generous with material support and intelligence sharing. This culminated with the arrival of two Cessna 208B Caravan ISR planes on July 27.
As for the ongoing confrontation with local Communists, a struggle that has taxed Duterte’s patience, neither China nor the US have anything of value to contribute. This leaves the overstretched armed forces to carry the burden of suppressing the long-running insurgency–an effort that diminishes their focus on matters territorial. Even the administration’s economic plans for building infrastructure depends on its own spending and may see just token participation by Chinese firms.
Everything points to unassailable Chinese hegemony in the coming decades with a foreseeable clash against a rival country. It’s obvious the Philippines’ current leadership is trying to hasten the inevitable and find its place in the new pecking order. But the question does arise: At what price and at what cost?