Does Duterte see eye-to-eye with his generals?
While the Philippine leader cozies up to China, his defense chief has rung alarm bells about Beijing's strategic expansion in the South China Sea
“You can really see the sincerity of Chinese, so let me publicly again thank President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us,” said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte after recently receiving US$200 million in Chinese economic assistance for agricultural development and post-earthquake recovery in a provincial area of the island nation.
At the same speech, the tough-talking leader waxed poetic about how China is “giving us enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet.” Duterte will follow up those compliments during a visit to China in May, his second in recent months, to attend a summit meeting where he hopes to win Chinese investments in Philippine infrastructure.
But while Duterte has lauded China as a partner in national development, his Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana has rung alarm bells about China’s expanding footprint in maritime areas claimed by Manila. Earlier this year, Lorenzana warned that China could soon push ahead in claiming outright the contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies just 100 nautical miles from the Philippine main military bases of Subic and Clark.
A former defense attache to Washington, Lorenzana has said “If we allow them, they will build” military facilities on the shoal and that he finds China’s expansion in the South China Sea “very, very disturbing” and “unacceptable.” Lorenzana notably declined an earlier invitation by Duterte to be reposted to Washington as his ambassador to the US, deciding instead to maintain his role as the country’s top soldier.
It is unclear whether Duterte and Lorenzana are engaged in a “good cop, bad cop” routine to extract maximum economic benefits from China while keeping the US close for strategic purposes, or are genuinely of opposed views on how to best balance the country’s diplomacy. Duterte’s pro-China rhetoric has been constantly filtered by the more conservative, China-skeptic security establishment.
Duterte’s convivial approach towards Beijing represents a sharp departure from the previous Benigno Aquino government, which on multiple occasions likened China to “Nazi Germany”, a revisionist power bent on territorial aggrandizement at the expense of smaller neighbors. That has led some to characterize Duterte as a pro-China stooge willing to sacrifice territorial integrity for economic benefits.
In a rhetorical shift, Duterte told the military on Monday to assert Philippine “ownership” off the country’s northeastern coast, where Chinese survey ships have been spotted in recent months. Duterte had earlier said he could “reset” improved relations if China engaged in unilateral and disruptive actions within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Recent opinion surveys show that a majority of Filipinos believe the government should adopt a firm stance on defending its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. More recently, Lorenzana revealed in a media interview that China is starting to show what he characterized as “troubling” interest in the Benham Rise, a maritime feature which lies within the Philippines EEZ in the Pacific Ocean.
Lorenzana said that for the past three months Chinese surveillance vessels positioned at the Benham Rise had engaged in oceanographic research to explore the possibility of deploying a Chinese submarine to the area. Describing the situation as “very concerning”, Lorenza says he ordered the navy to “start to accost them and drive them away from the eastern side of the Philippines.”
The Defense Department subsequently notified Filipino diplomats to relay their displeasure about the situation.
Unlike Duterte, who has enthusiastically welcomed closer military cooperation with Eastern powers, Lorenzana has repeatedly struck a more somber, if not skeptical, note about security cooperation with China and Russia, which has been agreed but yet to be implemented in any meaningful way.
At the same time, Lorenzana and other top defense officials have consistently lobbied for robust military cooperation with America. Duterte’s chief adviser, former president Fidel Ramos, has vocally emphasized the indispensability of preserving the foundations of the Philippine-American military alliance and the importance of maintaining interoperability between the two long-time treaty allies.
The Philippines’ armed forces, which has been largely trained, funded and equipped by the US, has successfully convinced Duterte to not only maintain the foundation of the alliance but also implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will allow the US to build facilities in at least three existing Philippine military bases.
In an apparent nod to China, however, Duterte nixed American plans under the agreement to develop the Bautista Airbase on the island province of Palawan, which is geographically close to the disputed Spratly islands.
Soon after Duterte made the Palawan announcement, Lorenzana, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominquez and Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aquirre took the opportunity to tour onboard the American aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson en route to “freedom of navigation” operations it conducted in the South China Sea.
The tour was an unmistakable reflection of how the century-old alliance still resonates even with Duterte’s most senior political allies who pay lip service to his call for a more independent foreign policy. Despite his strong popularity, Duterte realizes he can’t ignore the sentiments of the powerful military, which many Filipinos view as an honest guardian of the national interest.
While Duterte goes hat-in-hand to China for aid and investment, Lorenzana is keeping his hand strategically extended towards America.