Three years into his quiescent China policy, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is experiencing a rude awakening in the South China Sea. The ongoing Chinese siege of the Philippines’ largest land feature in the Spratlys, Thitu Island, represents Duterte’s greatest foreign policy crisis and, ironically, the very country he has courted assiduously is at the heart of it.

Since December 2018, an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels have swarmed Thitu, a disputed land feature permanently occupied by dozens of Filipino troops and civilians for the past half-century. The island has even had resident mayors. Thus, China’s latest strategy to swarm around the island has been perceived as “an almost invasion” among Filipinos, who have launched anti-China protests in recent weeks. The widespread backlash comes amid crucial midterm elections, which serves as a de facto referendum on Duterte’s presidency.

Under growing public pressure, Duterte and his surrogates have adopted an increasingly tough stance, with the Philippine president warning China, “If you touch it [Thitu Island]…I will tell my soldiers [to] ‘prepare for suicide missions.’” The Philippine government threatened to take the case to the United Nations General Assembly if necessary, while Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin declared he has “no fear of war” to resist China’s actions.

If left unresolved, the ongoing siege could torpedo Duterte’s rapprochement with Beijing much as the Scarborough Shoal crisis in 2012 poisoned Philippine-China relations for year. Duterte has now found himself stuck between an overbearing China and an enraged Filipino public.

Swarm, Surround, and Suffocate

Mark Twain once observed that history doesn’t necessarily repeat it self, but it often rhymes. What Duterte is grappling with rhymes with the experience of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III.

Throughout his first two years in office, Aquino consciously cultivated warmer ties with China. To the chagrin of his many supporters, he even decided to turn down an invitation to attend the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. This was a particularly controversial decision given his parents’ (Former senator Benigno Aquino Jr. and former president Corazon Aquino) status as democracy icons in Asia and beyond. Yet, the former president tried to justify his decision by saying, “our interest [is] to advance our citizens’ needs first,” namely the need to maintain warm relations with China. In response, China’s then-ambassador to Manila Liu Jianchao said, “I appreciate the understanding shown by the Philippine government of the Chinese people and the Chinese government.”

The following year, Aquino visited Beijing, where he held cordial and fruitful dialogue with the top Chinese leadership. The trip culminated in the decision of both countries to explore a strategic partnership as well as double their bilateral trade to $60 billion. Within months, however, Aquino found himself locked in a precarious situation with China when an armada of Chinese paramilitary, coast guard, and naval forces surrounded the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal amid a months-long naval standoff. After a failed mutual disengagement plan, which saw only the Philippines withdraw its vessels from the area, Chinese forces effectively occupied the disputed shoal.

In response, the Aquino administration decided to take Beijing to an arbitral tribunal at The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while welcoming expanded security cooperation with Washington under a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Similar to his predecessor, Duterte spent his first two years in office exploring warmer ties with China. To Beijing’s delight, he stubbornly downplayed the South China Sea disputes in favor of expanded economic relations. The Filipino president even blocked earlier plans for joint patrols with the United States as well as America’s plan to preposition weapons in strategic Philippine bases through EDCA.

His accommodation policy toward China initially enjoyed public support. According to a 2017 Pew Survey, close to 7 out of 10 Filipinos supported cultivation of stronger economic ties with China. But Duterte’s China-friendly policy seems to have only whet Beijing’s territorial appetite and maritime expansionism. Not only has China accelerated its militarization of artificially-created islands in the area, but it has also deployed an armada of paramilitary forces which blatantly display its “grey zone” capacity to swarm, surround and suffocate Philippine supply lines in the area.

The Reverse Tide

According to the Philippine military, in the last three months there have been 657 sightings of Chinese vessels, which are suspected of belonging to the formidable People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia, around Thitu Island.

As many as 275 Chinese vessels have reportedly been involved in the ongoing siege, which fulfills multiple Chinese objectives: it exposes the vulnerability of Philippine supply-lines and positions in the disputed area; it allows Beijing to monitor and restrict the Philippines’ ongoing maintenance activities on Thitu; and it ensures the Philippines will not occupy a handful of nearby sandbars or exploit the rich fisheries resources in the area.

To the Philippines’ further consternation, Chinese vessels have also surrounded Loaita Island and Laoita Cay, two nearby land features under Philippine jurisdiction. Describing China’s activities as an “assault” on Philippine sovereignty, even Duterte’s usually acquiescent spokesman Salvador Penelo lamented, “We’re supposed to be friends. As the President says, friends don’t do that.”

Philippine public sentiment is increasingly turning against China. The latest survey by the Manila-based Social Weather Stations shows that only 2 out of 10 Filipinos see China as a trustworthy partner.

Fear of a “debt trap” as a result of planned Chinese investments, along with the reported influx of hundreds of thousands of undocumented Chinese workers, has only reinforced skepticism toward China. Amid widespread public criticism, Duterte was forced to call for a review of all government contracts with China, while promising to crackdown on illegal Chinese workers.

Duterte’s critics are already seizing on the opportunity. Last month, former foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario and former ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed a case with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against China. They accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of committing crimes against humanity for causing environmental damage to the South China Sea and depriving Filipino fishers of their rights to resources within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Public criticism of Duterte’s China policy has gone hand in hand with closer cooperation between the Philippine defense establishment and the United States amid shared concerns in the South China Sea. This month saw the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, with 10 F-35B stealth jets on board, participate in the annual Philippine-U.S. Balikatan exercises close to the disputed waters. The Philippine defense establishment has also been reassured by Washington’s greater expression of alliance commitments. Last month, the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear, for the first time, that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft, or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Halfway into his presidency, Duterte is coming under increasing pressure to take a tougher stance in the South China Sea and reassess his misguided China policy.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, currently a Research Fellow at National Chengchi University (Taiwan), and author of, among other works, The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt against Elite Democracy and The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China, and the New Struggle for Global Mastery.