Beijing’s South China Sea Bet On Duterte’s ‘Friendship’ Is Souring

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

China’s bet on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘friendship” to advance its South China Sea agenda is beginning to sour.

Last Monday, the Philippines high court instructed key government agencies, like the Philippine Navy, police and the Coast Guard, to do what President Rodrigo Duterte should have done three years ago: protect reefs and marine life in Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef.

That’s according to Radio Free Asia report (RFA), which quoted presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo saying that the government was “duty bound” to enforce the court order.

Apparently, the Philippines’ high court ruling puts an end to Presidents Duterte’s flip-flops on the South China Sea disputes, which begun in 2016.

Back then, China lost an international arbitration ruling to the Philippines and its close ally the US regarding its claim that it has historic title over the waters of the South China Sea.

In theory, that is. In practice, the ruling didn’t mean much. While China lost the ruling, it won a new “friend,” President Rodrigo Duterte. Rather than teaming up with the US to enforce the ruling, he walked the other way.

He sided with Beijing on the dispute, and pursued a “divorce” from the U.S. On April 2018, for instance, President Duterte backed off his earlier decision to raise the Philippine flag in disputed islands, following Beijing’s “friendly” advice.

Apparently, President Duterte was concerned about the prospect of an outright war with Beijing should he had tried to enforce the international arbitration ruling, reasoning that America wouldn’t rush to the Philippines side in that case.

But there was something else in the works, it seems. Beijing had offered Manila a couple of promises, as was discussed in previous pieces here. Like the promise to finance Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” initiative, and the promise of peace and a partnership for prosperity.

Meanwhile, there are a couple of things Beijing and Duterte miscalculated.  The first is that America has assured the Philippines that it would come to that nation’s defense if it comes under attack in the South China Sea.

That’s according to reports in early March, when Washington reaffirmed a defense code that Manila has sought to revise.

Secondarily, this has removed a major snag in relations between Washington and Manila; and seems to have appeased two former Filipino officials who filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) over China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea.

But not President Rodrigo Duterte. He didn’t seem to be ready for another foreign policy flip-flop – nor does he seem ready to get the country’s South China Sea Policy right: ie stick with the international law.

Until this week, that is, when the Philippines high court ruling forced him to do so, ruining China’s bet on his “friendship.”

 

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