The Philippines? shifting stance towards the South China Sea dispute

By Borja Fernandez

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte has been known for its conciliatory approach towards China in relation to the South China Sea dispute, preferring to engage with Beijing as close trade and investment partner rather than a threat to its sovereignty. However, recent Chinese activities in the Spratly Islands are putting this stance into question.  

Duterte’s “pivot to China”

In 2016, The Philippines won an international arbitration case against China over the South China Sea, which holds important untapped oil and gas reserves. However, China did not recognise the ruling and continued transforming reefs into artificial islands and expanding its military installations in the maritime zone.

After he came to power, president Duterte put aside the arbitration ruling in order to improve relations with China. Seeking a commercial alliance with Beijing, he opened up the country to Chinese workers and infrastructure investments. In his first trip to Beijing in October 2016, Duterte reaped US$24 billion in deals.  Both countries also agreed on advancing their cooperation for a joint exploration of the South China Sea energetic resources.

The president also began to question the adequacy of the US-Philippines alliance. In 2016, he expressed his wish of having a “separation” from the US and declared his intention of having US troops out of the country. This marked a shift in the foreign policy stand of Manila.

Troubled waters are raising domestic tides

Despite the warming of ties with China, Beijing hasn’t ceased its expansion efforts at the South China Sea. Moreover, recent developments have been restoring the tension between both countries. Since the beginning of the year, Philippines patrols have reported the sighting of over 200 Chinese vessels near Thitu Island, in the Spratly archipelago.  The island holds Filipino soldiers and civilians, and China has strongly opposed Manila activity in this area.

Duterte’s administration has faced domestic criticism denouncing his soft stance in the maritime issue and his inclination to strengthen economic ties with Beijing. On April 9, protesters marched towards the Chinese embassy in Manila to demonstrate against Chinese presence in the South China Sea and its increasing economic influence in the country. In a poll from September last year, 87 percent of respondents said that the Philippines should regain control of islands and shoals it claims in the disputed waters.

In response to the vessels sightings, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that their presence was “a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty”. Duterte also asked China to “lay off” the island and threatened to deploy soldiers otherwise. On April 2, Philippines presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that the government could raise the 2016 arbitration ruling if bilateral negotiations fail to bring a solution. In essence, these declarations seem to be signalling new adjustments in the Philippines policy towards China.

These moves come ahead of critical midterm elections in May and Duterte’s visit to Beijing later this month. As Duterte’s opponents have been denouncing the risks of Chinese loans, the issues with illegal Chinese workers, or the president’s ties with a Chinese businessman accused of being involved in illegal drug trade; his administration is on the lookout of a more stringent approach towards China.

Time for a Philippines-US rapprochement?

Amid these circumstances, the Philippines and the US are engaging in more efforts to improve their ties and increasing their joint military drills. In a recent visit to Manila, the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo appealed to the Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) between both countries to assert the US commitment to assist the Philippines in case of armed attack on its vessels or aircraft. Pompeo also declared that the Chinese military and island development activity threatens the “sovereignty, security and therefore economic livelihood” of the Philippines and the US.

His visit came two months after Delfin Lorenzana, Philippines defence secretary, recognized the need to review the treaty to address the lack of concrete commitment from the US in the South China Sea scenario.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the treaty has long been unsatisfactory for Manila, because of its vagueness in covering disputed territories. Whereas it is not clear if the US would intervene in case of being attacked in the South China Sea, the Philippines would be involved automatically if US vessels were to trigger a crisis situation.

Adjusting to a foreign policy challenge

Despite having been one of the most belligerent ASEAN countries towards China in the past, the Philippines are unlikely to take steps that could damage stability. Even if the recent events have made Duterte to slightly deviated from his non-confrontational stance towards China, the president’s priority remains to maintain a pragmatic approach in order to pursue beneficial trade, investment, and infrastructure deals with China.

Therefore, his administration will try to address the dispute through bilateral ways, in opposition to international arbitration. As jointly agreed by both countries last November, Manila will adhere to the consensus of exercising self-restraint to prevent an escalation of the territorial dispute. The recent statements from the government seem to serve more as a tactic to gain public trust from citizens ahead of the midterm elections rather than as an actual statement of intent.

However, this won’t be enough to slow down China’s action or to revert public distrust towards Manila’s inaction at sea. These factors are revealing weaknesses in Duterte´s approach, and they might result in tougher challenges for his administration in the medium term.

Overall, the multiple shifts in the Philippines foreign policy approach have resulted in a very inconsistent track, and we can expect similar changes of course in the future. This has proven innocuous for regional stability but could prevent Manila from reaping gains from more coherent stances. For example, if it doesn´t consolidate its ties with the US, Manila might fail to achieve a revision of the MDT on its own terms. As the country faces pressure from the two global superpowers, appeasing both of them could prove an impossible juggling game.


This article was originally published on Global Risk Insights.

GeopoliticsPhilippinesRodrigo DuterteSouth China Sea dispute