Manila’s tough talk on South China Sea aimed at easing fears at home, analysts say
Domestic pressure has ramped up on Rodrigo Duterte administration to take a stronger line on Beijing, according to observers
Ties between Beijing and Manila may be under pressure from China’s growing assertiveness in the contested South China Sea, after the Philippine president’s top aides warned against crossing the country’s “red lines” in the resource-rich waterway.
While the harsh words this week deviated from the Rodrigo Duterte administration’s friendlier line, analysts say domestic political pressure has pushed Manila to be less cosy with Beijing, even if military conflict over the disputed waters remains unlikely.
Philippine national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said on Wednesday that Duterte would be willing to use force if the country’s soldiers were hurt in the South China Sea, including at Pagasa, or Thitu – one of the largest islands of the Spratly chain, which both China and the Philippines claim.
“Just the other night, the president said if my troops are hurt there, that could be my red line,” Esperon told reporters. “We are not saying we are going to war, but if they oppress us, that may force our hand because we will not allow ourselves to be oppressed.”
The comments follow those by Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano earlier this week that Duterte would “go to war” if China crossed its lines by engaging in oil and gas extraction or constructing on the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
China’s claims to more than 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which overlap with several of its neighbours’, have long been a point of regional contention. In recent months, militarisation of its man-made islands in the waterway has expanded, along with its deployment of surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles, radar jamming equipment and long-range bombers, sparking concerns across the region.
For the Philippines, while relations with China have improved with a foreign policy approach that prioritises economic cooperation and downplays Beijing’s territorial assertiveness – Duterte has even quipped that Beijing should make the Philippines a Chinese province – domestic pressure has ramped up on Manila to take a tougher line, observers say.
Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Duterte had been caught between pro- and anti-China political factions in the Philippines.
“Even if President Duterte is very friendly to China, he faces domestic pressure to orient himself closer to the US and against China,” he said. “But the two countries will not go to war over the South China Sea and will use appropriate measures to handle the issue.”
Richard Heydarian, a Manila-based academic and author, said the latest pushback from the Duterte administration reflected the effectiveness of growing domestic pressure, in particular from the defence establishment that “remains wary of China and close to the US”, as well as the media, opposition parties and prominent statesmen.
“The Duterte administration is discovering the challenge of reorienting the Philippine foreign policy too closely in China’s favour, and this is the first time that we see such clear drawing of the lines in the South China Sea sand by the Philippines,” he said. “Duterte will have to take the concerns of other veto players into consideration.”
Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, also said the remarks were intended to ease domestic concerns rather than to signal a tougher stance on China. But the country’s resumption of its Balikatan military exercises with the US, its defence ally, showed Manila would continue to balance its ties between the two powers, he said.
“The American card is always kept close in the pocket as a form of strategic security leverage against China,” Koh said. “However, whether the US will intervene militarily in the event of a South China Sea crisis that involves the Philippines remains up for debate.”