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Duterte Just Explained His Strategic Conundrum

May 19, 2018

Via Wikimedia Commons.

This month has produced undeniable evidence of the PLA fortifying its claim over the South China Sea. A week after a leading US think tank revealed that anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles were deployed on the artificial islands constructed over the Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs the Philippines’ pro-Chinese head of state was aboard the BRP Davao del Sur–an LPD made in Indonesia–to address his country’s territorial problems.

Since taking office President Duterte has adopted a soft approach to the South China Sea conflict by fawning over his counterpart in Beijing and making sure to insist on Philippine sovereignty over the disputed waters when facing a local audience.

This is exactly what transpired aboard the Davao del Sur on May 15, a Tuesday, where Duterte spoke in front of the ship’s crew and other naval personnel. The occasion was to mark the one year anniversary of the “Philippine Rise” that’s claimed by Manila so it can deter Chinese exploration across the Philippine Sea. Duterte arrived by helicopter in Casiguran Bay where the Davao del Sur was anchored and to further publicize his visit he allowed his personal assistant, Bong Go, together with his youngest son Sebastian Duterte to ride jet skis while carrying Philippine flags.

The stunt was supposed to fulfill a campaign promise Duterte made in 2016 that he will personally visit the South China Sea and stake the Philippines’ claim over it. But the symbolism behind what took place in Casiguran Bay appeared misplaced–the bay itself isn’t disputed since it’s inside Philippine territory.

During his visit to the Davao del Sur the President discussed the geopolitics his administration is wrestling with. In another rambling address delivered in English and Filipino Duterte offered a behind-the-scenes perspective on how he dealt with Xi Jinping, whose time in office is marked by an ambitious military build up. Duterte said he was fully committed to defending the Philippines maritime territory during his earliest meeting with Xi but the discussion over the South China Sea was ignored. Rather than press on, Duterte managed to reach an agreement for a delivery of Chinese small arms.

According to Duterte he never gave up on the West Philippine Sea–Manila’s preferred name for the South China Sea–and the most sensible course to resolve the conflict is reaching a deal for joint oil and gas exploration. This is far from groundbreaking, since the Duterte administration’s strategy when dealing with China is focused on bilateral agreements the government can profit from. Duterte also claimed, without providing any detailed explanation, that China promised him “a bigger share” of any profits from oil and gas extraction in the South China Sea.

Duterte did insist that when it comes to Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) controlled by the Philippines he will immediately allow exploration and economic activities. This was referring to the Philippine Rise, which could encompass some very rich fishing grounds, and the greater Philippine Sea. Duterte made sure to mention how futile a direct confrontation with China is because this would mean horrific losses for the Philippine military. “I will not do that,” he said. “We should hold on to whatever we can get in the West Philippine Sea for now.”

Duterte also explained the persistent threat of further ISIS recruitment in Mindanao and this led to another tirade against the US, whose air force provided logistical support during the battle of Marawi, that put China in a good light. “This is why I don’t talk to the Americans,” he said. “I’m angry at their hypocrisy and their bullying.”

“China will never allow the Philippines to be destroyed,” Duterte added. “Since we can’t do anything about China we might as well make friends with them.”

“I’m playing geopolitics with everybody,” Duterte declared in front of his audience. “If I run out of soldiers maybe you [China] can send me three battalions…the assurance of Xi Jinping was very encouraging.”

“[Xi told me] we will not allow you to be taken out of office and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs,” Duterte said.

A full transcript of the President’s speech can be found at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) website.

Duterte’s presence aboard the Davao del Sur was to commemorate an anniversary and send off a group of scientists tasked with mapping the Philippine Rise. But his speech in front of naval personnel and other Filipinos in uniform revealed a troubling mindset. Since Duterte harbors a grudge against the US he prefers boasting about his own personal allegiance to China while paying his own countrymen lip service about their sovereign rights over faraway waters. This is the most compelling evidence yet the Philippines’ current leadership have chosen appeasement over a credible foreign policy. What it shows to the rest of the world is one Southeast Asian country’s intrinsic and inescapable weakness.

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