Rodrigo Duterte may hand China the strategic piece it needs to take control of the South China Sea
Next week Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, who took power in late June, will make his first state visit to China. Of course he’s hoping for a bonanza of loans and trade deals. What he’s not expecting or demanding: the return of Scarborough Shoal, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012, sparking demonstrations by Filipinos around the world.
“We cannot win that,” he said during a speech this week. “Even if we get angry, we’ll just be putting on airs. We can’t beat [China].”
A large coral atoll with a reef-rimmed lagoon, Scarborough Shoal lies about 120 nautical miles (222 km, 138 miles) from the Philippines’ coast. Filipino fishermen have relied on the atoll’s rich fishing grounds for generations. China has blocked their access to it since the takeover.
But China didn’t seize Scarborough Shoal just for the fish. It took it for control of the South China Sea.
Beijing is close to creating a “strategic triangle” in the sea that would allow it to monitor and police the waterway for decades to come. In recent years it’s rapidly built large artificial islands—with bunkers, landing strips, and surveillance equipment—atop reefs and other features, including in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, in the south and west, respectively. All it needs now to complete the triangle is one more such island—at Scarborough Shoal in the northeast.
In the US, lawmaker Dan Sullivan warned the Senate Armed Services Committee about the triangle in April. On a map he showed a ring around each point of the triangle, showing the approximate range of Chinese fighter jets. The overlapping rings easily cover most of the sea (Woody Island below is part of the Paracels):
Earlier this year the US warned China that it would cross a red line if it built an island at Scarborough Shoal, suggesting the move could set off a conflict of some sort with US-Philippine forces. But that was when the Philippines was more on the US side. In recent months Duterte has become enraged with the US—along the EU, UN, and human rights groups—for criticizing his dubious anti-drug war, which has encouraged vigilante and extrajudicial killings.
Duterte is prone to losing his temper and using coarse language—a Filipino actress described him as “a psychopath.” Last week Duterte said the US could “go to hell,” part of string of vulgar insults he’s hurled at critics. He indicated he may eventually decide to “break up with America,” and suggested he’d be fine with the US (and EU) withdrawing aid because of human rights issues.
In mid-September Duterte said the Philippines would begin buying weapons from China and Russia (the US is the traditional main supplier), and that it would cease joint patrols of the South China Sea with the US.
“It looked like Duterte was pivoting away from US towards the Chinese camp,” said Richard J. Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University in Manila. “This is where a lot of countries were caught off guard. Duterte could actually make a huge impact, not only on Philippines foreign policy but also on the broader regional geopolitical dynamics.”
Befriending the bully
Under the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines defied Beijing’s bullying. Realizing it lacked the military strength to take back Scarborough Shoal, it turned to international law, specifically the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both nations are signatories.
China justified its aggression with its “nine-dash line,” which encompasses the part of the sea it considers its longtime territory. That area includes nearly the entire waterway, and it cuts well into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) granted to coastal states by UNCLOS. In an EEZ, which extends out 200 nautical miles from the coast, a nation gets sole rights to natural resources within and under the sea.
In 2013 the Philippines opened a case under UNCLOS against China. In a ruling handed down on July 12, a tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines and rejected China’s sweeping claims, invalidating the nine-dash line. Filipinos celebrated—but by that time Duterte was in power.
Were Aquino’s anointed successor Mar Roxas currently president of the Philippines, it’s likely the nation would now be rallying international diplomatic pressure against China, said Heydarian. Instead Duterte, after years of the Philippines building its legal argument and winning, appears set to essentially reverse course and give China Scarborough Shoal after all. (The about-face plays right into the long-standing view in China that the Philippines is a weak country that should respect the regional superpower.)
Of course that won’t necessarily mean China immediately building an artificial island there. “I think it’s possible the Chinese, in the short run, may suspend any construction activities in the Scarborough Shoal to facilitate a warming-up of relations with Duterte,” said Heydarian.
But the writing is on the wall. China has expressed satisfaction with the Philippines’ changing stance under Duterte. The Chinese ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, said in late September:
“Ever since president Duterte took office, China and Philippines have been engaging in friendly interactions, which have yielded a series of positive results. The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”
It also bodes well for Chinese energy companies. China’s bullying in the South China Sea has also included preventing the Philippines from exploring for oil off its own coast. Beijing has its eyes especially on oil or natural gas deposits that fall within both the nine-dash line and other nations’ EEZs. In those instances, it insists on bilaterally negotiated “joint development”—getting a share of the profits, in other words, even though under UNCLOS the resources belong solely to the coastal state.
Who else will stop China?
Since the tribunal this summer, the US, Australia, Japan, and Singapore have maintained strong stands insisting China respect the tribunal ruling and international law. Otherwise, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned, the “law of the jungle” would prevail in the South China Sea, with small nations falling under the control of big ones.
But many nations have taken a more neutral stance. “Some of the EU officials also told me ‘Why should we take the hardline position when the very country that initiated the case is suddenly sounding completely different?’” said Heydarian.
There was definitely huge short-term shock to all those prepared for a “contstrainment” strategy against China. Constrainment, not a containment, because China is too important and too economically integrated to contain. You can constrain China by mobilizing diplomatic pressure, by conducting more and more multi-lateral exercises among like-minded countries. Duterte single-handedly essentially cleared the deck so the poker game had to start from scratch.
In siding more with China, the Philippines would take a position closer to Cambodia’s, a country that has backed Beijing’s South China Sea positions in international forums. After China took Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Cambodia blocked a joint statement on the matter from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It did something similar this year after the tribunal’s ruling. In each instance, around the same time it also received significant aid or investment from China.
“Even if the West matched what China offers Cambodia in financial aid and investments, it would come with a demand that human rights and democracy be respected, neither of which China asks of Cambodia,” Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has noted.
Last week Indonesia staged a large military exercise around its Natuna Islands, watched by president Joko Widodo. The Natunas’ EEZ overlaps with China’s nine-dash line. The move was a clear signal to China that Indonesia is prepared to defend its territory.
Duterte, like Hun Sen, has autocratic tendencies and has expressed satisfaction with China and Russia not for bringing up questions about human rights.
Some have called Beijing’s strategy in the South China Sea as “salami slicing,” or taking many small, incremental actions, none of which is on its own dramatic enough to provoke a response, but that over time lead to a strategic advantage. Scarborough Shoal was one of the larger slices it’s taken in recent years. Thanks to Duterte, it looks set to get away with it— and to be rewarded for acting aggressively at sea.