Filipino President Duterte’s Chinese pivot failed to reduce South China Sea tensions



Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2019 in Beijing, China.

Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Kyodo News | Getty Images

More than five years later, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-Beijing stances have failed to subdue China’s assertion in the contested South China Sea – and the next Philippine leader should be bolder to challenge Beijing, a said a political and risk analyst.

The Philippines will hold a general election to vote for a new president in May as Duterte’s six-year term comes to an end. Duterte has sought to strengthen ties with Beijing and has said he is ready to put aside his country’s territorial rivalry with China in the South China Sea.

China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, including the Philippines, have been embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea for decades.

China claims almost all of the waterway. In recent years, China has built man-made islands in the sea, as Chinese fishing fleets and maritime militia ships invaded areas internationally recognized as belonging to other countries.

“The best-case scenario for the Philippines would be a change in the mindset of the elected leader in May 2022,” said Peaches Lauren Vergara, head of strategic intelligence practice at Amador Research Services, a research and research firm. advice.

The next Philippine president is expected to move away from “the defeatist stance displayed by the current rulers” and challenge China’s claims more strongly, Vergara wrote in a December report published by the Asia Society Policy Institute.

CNBC has contacted the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as the Chinese embassies in Singapore and the Philippines, for comment on the report. None have responded at the time of posting.

Tensions with China

Within months of Duterte’s presidential term, China’s pledged infrastructure investments in the Philippines have fallen short of expectations, while tensions between Manila and Beijing rise again in the South China Sea, according to a December report. of the International Crisis Group think tank.

“Many in the Philippines are increasingly skeptical of a rapprochement with China if it involves dropping claims over various disputed maritime features,” the report read.

The South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway, contributes about 27% of the Philippines’ total fish production, Vergara said in the Asia Society Policy Institute report. A group of scientists have reportedly warned that Chinese activities in the disputed waters threatened the fishing industry.

Meanwhile, tensions with China have hampered the Philippines’ offshore oil exploration efforts.

“This has serious implications for the country’s ability to achieve energy security as its main source of natural gas for electricity supply – Malampaya – is nearly depleted,” Vergara said.

Some members of the Duterte government protested more strongly against the presence of Chinese ships in parts of the South China Sea that were internationally recognized as belonging to the Philippines.

In May, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. sent an unusually aggressive tweet to Beijing as the two countries clashed over the South China Sea. Locsin Jr. accused China of straining its “friendship” with the Philippines.

Philippine presidential race

China’s growing assertion and Duterte’s “submission” to Beijing have brought the issues surrounding the South China Sea to the fore in the Philippines, Vergara said.

Some analysts said Filipino presidential candidates who appeared to be pro-China could face public opposition.

Former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, addresses the media after submitting his candidacy to participate in the 2022 presidential race, at the Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent on October 06, 2021 in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Rouelle Umali | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – son and namesake of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos – conducted the latest public opinion poll on the presidential race. In a December survey by independent pollster Pulse Asia, 53% of those polled chose Marcos Jr. as their preferred presidential candidate.

Compared to Duterte, Marcos Jr. would seek “a more balanced relationship” with the United States and China if elected, said Peter Mumford, practice manager for South Asia’s risk advisory and Southeast at Eurasia Group, in a report released last month.

Navigate the American-Chinese competition

The South China Sea is one of the contentious issues in the geopolitical competition between the United States and China. The administration of US President Joe Biden has denounced China’s “illegal” allegations and “harassment” at sea.

The Philippines are in a difficult position in this contest. The Southeast Asian country has a defense treaty with the United States, while China is its largest neighbor and primary economic partner.

“A crucial question remains whether the Philippines can navigate between China and the United States without an armed confrontation forcing them to choose sides,” said the International Crisis Group.

“For now, Manila is covering itself well. But its balance could soon become untenable as Beijing seeks to assert its regional ambitions and Washington retreats,” he added.

The think tank said the Philippines could not resolve the South China Sea dispute on its own. The country should work with its neighbors on issues of common interest, such as fisheries management and law enforcement, to deal with their territorial disputes.

The Philippines is also expected to push to finalize a “code of conduct” between Southeast Asian countries and China to deal with maritime tensions, while keeping a diplomatic channel with Beijing open to reduce misunderstandings, the Philippines said. ‘International Crisis Group.

“None of these measures will resolve the increasingly entrenched maritime dispute, but they could help reduce the risk of incidents at sea escalating into conflict.”


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