Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s early-August announcement that he will finally invoke the Philippines’ arbitral tribunal victory against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea took everyone by surprise. After all, it represented a marked shift from his earlier decision to “set aside” the landmark ruling, which has been vehemently rejected by China as “null and void” and a “piece of trash paper”.
When Beijing reiterated its position against the ruling earlier this month, Duterte stood his ground, arguing that he is hell bent on raising the ruling during his fifth visit to China. Not long ago the Filipino president advised smaller states to be “meek” and “humble” in exchange for Beijing’s “mercy”. So what explains the sudden change of heart—or rather, rhetoric?
Upon closer examination, Duterte’s toughening stance is part of a two-fold strategy to rescue his increasingly unpopular policy toward China. Partly, it’s a desperate attempt to keep critics as well the Beijing-skeptic defense establishment, including his top generals, at bay. But more importantly, it’s a cynical ploy to justify his bid for finalizing controversial, if not outright illegal, attempts at inking joint-development agreements covering both fisheries and energy resources with China before he leaves office, with potentially dire consequences for the region.
The Brewing Storm
Despite having secured a landslide midterm elections victory for his allies in both legislative houses, Duterte found himself isolated and besieged following the Reed Bank incident in June. He provoked public ire and deep disillusionment even among his own supporters and generals by effectively taking China’s side after a suspected Chinese militia vessel sunk a Filipino fishing boat.
Buoyed by Duterte’s commitment to practically lawyer for China, Beijing began to push the envelope and test the limits of its strategic immunity. Since July, it has unilaterally dispatched research vessels into Philippine waters as well as redeployed an armada of militia vessels to swarm Philippine-held land features in the Spratlys. But China seemingly breached the threshold of the Philippine defense establishment’s patience by repeatedly deploying warships within the Philippines’ territorial sea without any notification.
In response, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused China of “bullying” behavior in the South China Sea. After taking a tough stance against China during the Reed Bank crisis, the Philippine defense chief had come under internal pressure to tone down his criticism of Beijing. This time he has refused to back down, accusing Chinese warships of deliberately switching off their Automatic Identification System transceivers while navigating within 12 nautical miles of Philippine shores.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines went so far as to openly accuse China of “duplicity” and “deception” and “violation of rule of law” by intruding into Philippine waters. Lorenzana himself suggested espionage or other hostile actions as the likely intent of Chinese warships within Philippine waters, and publicly called on Duterte to directly raise the issue with the Chinese leadership.
Shortly after, the Philippine defense establishment upped the ante by openly warning about an influx of Chinese citizens into the Philippines. In late July, National Security Advisor Hermogenes Esperon portrayed Chinese workers in the Philippines as a potential national security “threat”. The statement came days after several Chinese tourists were arrested for surreptitiously taking photographs in a Philippine naval bases close to the Spratlys.
Mindful of 2017 Chinese legislation requiring citizens to aid national intelligence networks, Lorenzana began questioning Duterte’s welcoming of the billion-dollar Chinese gambling industry into the Philippines. In a seeming rebuke of Duterte’s China policy, Lorenzana publicly suggested that Chinese online casino offices, which have suspiciously clustered around Philippine military bases, could quickly transform into a den of spies.
These recent developments have not only underlined the relative personal and institutional autonomy of Philippine defense officials and the broader establishment, but also revealed an internal revolt against Duterte’s strategic acquiescence vis-à-vis China. Against the backdrop of public outcry for a tougher stance against China, with 9 out of 10 Filipinos calling on Duterte to invoke the arbitral award, the Filipino president recalibrated his tone.
In what looks like a scripted maneuver, Duterte chose a high-profile event hosted by influential Filipino-Chinese businesspeople, which have backed his pro-China impulses, to announce that he is “going to China to talk [about the arbitration award].” Shortly before flying to China for his fifth visit in less than three years, he insisted that “whether you like it or not, it will make you (China) happy or not, angry or otherwise, I’m sorry. But we have to talk about the arbitral ruling.”
The announcement was warmly welcomed even by his toughest critics, including former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who called on Filipinos “to salute him and assure him of the support of all Filipinos.” Yet a careful analysis suggests that Duterte isn’t changing tone just to keep his critics at bay—it’s even more cynical than that. In fact, he intends to selectively invoke both the arbitral award and UNCLOS in order to circumvent domestic legal restrictions threatening his controversial decision to hand China portions of fisheries and energy resources within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
This motivation was on full display during his latest State of the Nation Address, where he deliberately and selectively invoked the arbitration award to justify his decision to allow Chinese fishers to freely roam and poach in Philippine waters. Citing China’s “traditional fishing rights” around the contested Scarborough Shoal, which is located within the Philippines’ EEZ, Duterte sought to justify his “verbal agreement” with China on fisheries, which likely covers the entirety of the Philippines’ EEZ in violation of the Philippine constitution. He has also selectively cited UNCLOS provisions on resource sharing to back up his controversial policy.
Duterte will likely try to deploy a selective interpretation of UNCLOS as a pretext for a prospective joint energy exploration deal in Reed Bank, which falls within the Philippines’ EEZ and China’s nine-dashed-line. The deal could potentially violate not only the Philippines constitution, but also the arbitral award, which invalidated the nine-dash line. China has no rightful claim to energy resources within the Philippines’ EEZ.
Ahead of his latest visit to Beijing, Duterte proudly announced the possibility of sharing energy resources with China in Reed Bank, which only legitimizes China’s excessive claims in the area and emboldens its aggressive actions in the South China Sea. Philippine foreign secretary Teddy Locsin suggested that the negotiations are going smoothly, raising the possibility of multiple joint development agreements being finalized before Duterte steps down from office. Following Duterte’s visit to China, the two sides are expected to finalize the legal basis of a joint energy development agreement with China before the end of this year.
Instead of signaling a newfound willingness to stand up to Beijing, Duterte’s invocation of the arbitration award is likely a cynical tactic adopted only to protect his agenda of rapprochement and lock the Philippines into long-term resource-sharing deals with China, contrary to both the Philippine constitution and international law. For those who warmly welcomed his latest announcement, and supposedly toughening stance against China: be careful what you wish for.