A bilateral approach will get the Philippines nowhere in its South China Sea dispute with China

Alan Robles says by seemingly cosying up to China, incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte appears willing to ignore carefully nurtured friendships in the region in favour of a relationship that can hardly be equal

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 June, 2016, 5:39pm

Any time within the next month, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to hand down a judgment on the Philippine position on the South China Sea. Experts believe the decision will largely uphold Manila’s case.

Such a ruling would mark a victory for the multilateral diplomacy and “lawfare” waged by the government of President Benigno Aquino. But there’s a hitch: the decision will fall squarely in the lap of Rodrigo Duterte, who will be inaugurated as president on June 30. And the tough-talking populist doesn’t look like he knows what to do with the ruling.

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During the election campaign, Duterte’s pronouncements on foreign affairs sounded like the ramblings of a drunkard. Asked in one presidential debate what he’d do about the South China Sea controversy, he replied he’d jet-ski to the contested area and plant a Philippine flag. He offended Australia with a crude rape joke, expressed dislike for the US and hurled obscenities at the Pope, Singapore and the United Nations. Interestingly, he never once attacked China.

After winning the election, Duterte claimed his over-the-top remarks and profane language were merely campaign strategies, and he promised he’d be circumspect and behave once in office.

A mayor of Davao City for 20 years, Duterte swept to the presidency on a platform of peace and order, vowing to crush crime and corruption. He’s promised to execute criminals monthly (hanging is his preferred mode), solve Manila’s maddening traffic problem and change the country’s form of government.

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When it comes to foreign policy, about the only thing he’s made clear is his desire to cosy up to China. He’s repeatedly stressed the need to reopen talks with Beijing, which earlier spurned approaches from the Aquino government. Months ago, Duterte said he was open to waiving the country’s claims if China agreed to build railways in the Philippines and jointly explore the disputed areas.

Duterte doesn’t seem to realise the fact that Philippine foreign policy has got to where it is for a reason

It’s hardly a secret that Beijing is pleased with Duterte’s ascendancy. Among the first to congratulate him on his victory was Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua (趙鑑華), who visited him in Davao on May 16, just a week after the election. By contrast, Duterte only consented to meet the US ambassador in June.

Still, his foreign policy moves give pause. To head the Department of Foreign Affairs, he’s picked Perfecto Yasay, a former head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose diplomatic experience is nil. During a TV interview, Yasay said that “there is a strong possibility that China will win this case”. But he gave no reasons for his less-than-optimistic words.

Yasay isn’t even going to be in for the duration; he’s just keeping the seat warm for a year, after which Senator Alan Peter Cayetano will assume the position (the rules require a year’s wait after he unsuccessfully ran for the vice-presidency). This casts doubt on the solidity and continuity of Philippine foreign policy at a time when it’s facing possibly its gravest international security problem since the second world war.

Matters weren’t helped much when a journalist with sources in the department claimed that Duterte’s legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, was angling to be appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. Panelo is better known as the defence lawyer of Andal Ampatuan Jnr, the warlord accused of murdering 58 people, 34 of them journalists, in 2009. Panelo withdrew from the case late last year.

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Diplomatic appointments aside, Duterte has to sharpen his message on the South China Sea. He might need some lessons in foreign policy implications. A week after meeting ambassador Zhao, Duterte claimed he’d brought up the fact that Filipino fishermen were being barred from Scarborough Shoal. Apparently, after this, the Chinese coastguard stopped blocking the fishermen, upon which the president-elect said: “I would like to thank China for understanding the plight of the Filipino.” This provoked a backlash on social media, with critics noting that by appearing to request Beijing’s permission to fish, Duterte might be acknowledging Chinese sovereignty.

He then backtracked. In a June 2 press conference, he blustered: “There will never be an instance where we will surrender our rights over Scarborough Shoal.” He claimed his plan was to wait for the arbitral tribunal’s verdict and then try a multilateral approach. If nothing happened in three or four years, he said, he would try a bilateral approach.

So far, Beijing has taken Duterte’s zigzags in its stride, in effect nodding benignly. Describing him as “a very strong man ... a man also of principle”, ambassador Zhao said, “he has the type of leadership we would like to work with to improve our bilateral relationship”. Duterte later responded by calling Xi Jinping (習近平) “a great president”.

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There are two problems with the bilateral approach. First, it would be the equivalent of a 98-pound weakling going up against an 800-pound gorilla. Second, even if the talks bear fruit and lead to partnership agreements, they will always run into one problem: China’s demand that Chinese law should apply in any partnership agreement. Interviewed last year by the Post, Aquino recalled: “There was a Chinese petroleum company that was engaged in talks for a possible joint venture, and we were hopeful that that would happen. But we did propound the question, [under] whose laws will this agreement be undertaken? That’s where it stopped.”

Duterte doesn’t seem to realise, or chooses to ignore, the fact that Philippine foreign policy has got to where it is for a reason. As Evan Garcia, a former foreign affairs undersecretary and currently ambassador to Britain, wrote in a letter to the Financial Times, “the arbitration case is the Philippines’ peaceful response to China’s unilaterally aggressive actions to pursue its expansive claims to the entire South China Sea”.

The Duterte administration faces the prospect of China continuing to militarise the area and possibly declaring an air defence identification zone. The Aquino administration built a diplomatic policy based on multilateral talks that saw approaches to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the US and others. Junking all of this will make the Philippines lose face, and cost it the support of allies it is cultivating. If Duterte casts all of this away, he’ll be setting a course for uncharted waters.

Alan Robles is a Manila correspondent and contributor to foreign and local publications. He is webmaster of the political humour site hotmanila.ph