After 17 months in office it’s now beyond any doubt President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China’s “ideological flow” is nothing more than kind words mixed with optimism. He’s completely cynical about it too. During a rambling speech at an event organized by the business community, Duterte quipped that perhaps it was better if the Philippines became a Chinese province.
The lighthearted gaffe from a head of state known for his colorful vocabulary didn’t go down well with the local press and the responses by Filipinos on social media were even less charitable. The belated attempt by the Malacañang spin factory to massage Duterte’s words didn’t work either.
On February 19 the Chinese-Filipino Business Club, Inc. held its “20th Founding Anniversary” at the posh Manila Hotel. Among the VIPs in attendance was Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, whom Duterte personally greeted before launching a colorful spiel in both English and the vernacular about his foreign policy and the circumstances that are shaping it.
Based on a transcript released by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Duterte eventually brought up his vague Chinese ancestry and how much he admired President Xi Jinping for being “a man of honor.” He then jested that maybe it was best to annex the Philippines outright. “If you want, just make us a province. Fujian and the Philippine province of China,” Duterte told the audience. “We won’t have any more problems, everything will be free [of charge].”
The point Duterte wanted to make, up until his aside about executing criminals, is the Philippines and China can jointly explore the Spratlys and locate its vast underwater oil deposits, with two thirds reserved for the Philippines, of course.
While Duterte’s attempt at humor may seem harmless, it did betray a shocking ignorance of the strategies driving the South China Sea conflict. Worse, it diminishes the gravitas of his own halfhearted attempts at asserting Philippine sovereignty. In the beginning of his speech at the Manila Hotel, Duterte told his audience “the [South] China Sea claim is really ours.” But he was also quick to dampen even the slightest trace of belligerence. “We cannot go there, ride in our whatever…and start waving our rifles” he said. “We cannot do that today, it’s unrealistic. It cannot be true.”
Why is the South China Sea always at risk of war, again? Every serious analysis of the subject draws the same conclusion. China seeks to dominate the body of water and doing so allows it maneuvering room beyond the “first island chain”–the obstructive countries along its eastern and southern seas. This means the US can no longer send warships near its coastline and China is free to deal with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the ASEAN on its own terms.
Since the Philippine military doesn’t have the firepower to evict the Chinese from the Spratlys, Duterte’s courtship of China appears sensible. But it’s ultimately problematic because it rests on a few terrible assumptions. First, that Beijing is always going to act in good faith. For the record, it doesn’t.
Second, joint oil exploration between Filipino and Chinese companies is a given. Third, China will pour money into the Philippines. Fourth, the South China Sea is a showdown between the PLAN and the US Navy, which is none of Duterte’s business.
If these are proven wrong, the opposites of all these assumptions have grave consequences for the Philippines. The Duterte administration are acting like they’re unaware of this and, as if on purpose, are ignoring the very tools–such as the The Hague’s 2016 ruling that invalidated China’s bogus maritime claims–for defending the country. Another terrible idea floated by Duterte is for Filipino troops to receive training in China. It’s an unrealistic option that goes against the armed forces’ traditions and its deep-seated preference for US assistance.
Since Duterte only pays lip service to the fact the rest of the Philippines prefers the US as an ally, he’s steadfast in pursuing a single great foreign policy objective. This is to broker an epic transaction with China, where the Philippines secures oil deposits, generous loans, and gifts in return for not threatening the seven artificial islands constructed over the Spratlys.
When the Philippine Daily Inquirer published aerial photos of China’s island bases in the Spratlys on February 5, it revealed how Malacañang’s reticence put national security at risk. It’s obvious China’s air force and navy are going to deploy on these fortified complexes. Insisting on joint venture to find oil in the same waters is foolish because the entire region is now a military domain, a battlespace for deploying anti-access weapons.
Duterte, with his flippant approach to diplomacy, is now entwined in Beijing’s good graces. Instead of crafting a viable strategy to deter China in the coming years, he’d rather have the military stay focused on suppressing local rebellions by Maoist diehards and Muslim terrorists. Neither does he hesitate to thwart arms deals at the slightest hint of criticism like the $233 million set aside for Bell 412 utility helicopters. Never mind if these sudden reversals frustrate the military’s cherished modernization plans. As a result, a serious reorientation toward the country’s maritime frontiers hasn’t taken place, nor is the Department of National Defense (DND) able to undertake contingencies for a naval clash.
It was only seven decades ago when the Philippines was devastated by Japan’s attempt to wrest control of Asia from the Allies. It was an unavoidable tragedy since the Philippine Islands were spread over vital sea routes stretching between the Yellow Sea and the Malacca Strait. This important lesson must be lost on the current occupants of Malacañang where a peculiar strategy has taken hold. It demands subservience to China so the Philippines is spared from the risk of war.
Just like his predecessors, Duterte is a Filipino leader whose best intentions manages to keep the country defenseless against external threats. And he joked about it.