Has Duterte’s China engagement backfired?
The Philippine leader's decision to set aside last July's international arbitration win over Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea has allowed China to consolidate major strategic gains
When a special arbitral tribunal ruled last July 12 in favor of the Philippines over China regarding their territorial disputes in the South China Sea, many at the time thought the tribunal’s landmark ruling would stall if not stop Beijing’s growing militarization of the contested maritime area.
One year on, China continues its fast build-up unperturbed while the Philippines and other claimants to parts of the sea have come to realize there is no firm mechanism to enforce the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)-based verdict against China’s diplomatic intransigence and military might.
On the first anniversary of its landmark arbitration win, President Rodrigo Duterte, who has opted in his first year in power to engage rather than confront China on the issue, is under rising pressure to take a tougher stance. The pressure comes amid reports China’s build-up is tilting the crucial waterway’s strategic balance in its favor vis-a-vis rival claimants.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), a unit attached to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, recently revealed new satellite imagery showing China has installed new missile shelters, radar and communication facilities on three manmade islands at Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, all nearby the Philippines.
AMTI claims that all three islands have since at least February hosted shelters with retractable roofs that have the potential to house missile launchers. The research also indicates China has installed large antennae on Mischief Reef that could be “connected to radars for any missile systems that might be housed there.”
With the recent build-up in the so-called “Big 3” features, “Beijing can now deploy military assets, including combat aircraft and mobile missile launchers, to the Spratly Islands at any time”, AMTI’s research said. The tribunal verdict notably ruled against China’s claim to the three reefs based on its recently built manmade islands on the features.
Beijing’s doctrine of “historic rights”, the foundation of the country’s expansive “nine-dashed-line” map that lays claim to nearly all of the South China Sea, is “incompatible” with international law since “there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources”, the tribunal’s verdict said.
It also censured China’s massive reclamation and island-building activities in the Spratly Islands as incompatible with the obligations of UNCLOS member states, especially because they “inflicted irreparable harm to the maritime environment” as well as “destroyed evidence of natural condition of features” in the South China Sea.
The tribunal also criticized Beijing for violating “the Philippines’ sovereign rights’ to exploit its fisheries and hydrocarbon resources within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in accordance to international law.”
Crucially, it ruled that there are no naturally formed islands in the Spratlys that can generate their own EEZs, while the Philippines and China have no overlapping EEZs in need of delimitation.
By all counts, it was a clean-sweep legal victory for the Philippines, which was “final and binding” based on Article 296, as well as Article 11, of Annex VII of the UNCLOS.
In response, an enraged China engaged in a systematic campaign to delegitimize the tribunal and its judges, adopting a “three-nos” policy of non-participation, non-recognition, and non-compliance with the final verdict. At the time, Beijing dismissed the award as a “null and void” decision and “nothing more than a piece of paper.”
It also effectively managed to rally international support, including among certain allied Southeast Asian countries, to ignore the arbitration award. Aside from threatening to withdraw from the UNCLOS, which it ratified in 2006, China also proposed to set up its own international arbitration bodies against its supposedly Western-dominated counterparts.
Only Japan, the United States and Australia openly called upon China to comply with the ruling, emphasizing its finality and binding nature under law. Concerned about spiking tensions, however, the Barack Obama administration swiftly deployed then National Security Adviser Susan Rice to China to avoid a retaliatory dust up and calm the Asian giant’s nerves.
The Philippines’ then-newly inaugurated president, however, proved to be a game-changer. Duterte immediately made it clear that he wouldn’t flaunt the award to taunt China, calling for “restraint and sobriety” in pursuit of a “soft-landing” in the disputed waters.
Over the subsequent months, he rapidly upgraded frayed relations with Beijing, and even expressed his preference for strategic “separation” from the US in favor of an alliance with China and Russia.
To China’s delight, Duterte repeatedly refused to raise the arbitration award in multilateral fora, including in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which is currently chaired by the Philippines.
He also downgraded security relations with Washington, nixing large-scale war games as well as plans for joint patrols in the South China Sea in the name of freedom of navigation. He followed up by blocking any criticism of China’s expanding military footprint and island-construction activities in the South China Sea.
Duterte has been richly rewarded for his pivot. China has offered large-scale infrastructure investment deals as well as an unprecedented $500 million loan to the Philippines’ US-leaning military. Almost overnight, bilateral relations went from acrimonious to cordial, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently hailing a “golden period of fast development” between the two sides.
Still, Duterte faces growing domestic pressure to adopt a tougher line with Beijing, which many believe has used cordial ties as cover to consolidate its control over key features. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a prominent supporter of the arbitration strategy, lambasted the president’s supposed lack of “discernible direction, coherence, or vision” in foreign policy.
He has heavily criticized some of Duterte’s remarks, particularly his announcement that he “will set aside the arbitral ruling” in the interest of better relations with China. “This incident [Dutetre’s remark] graphically explains Philippine foreign policy on the South China Sea dispute after the arbitral ruling,” exclaimed Carpio during a high-profile event marking the arbitration award’s first anniversary.
He reiterated the importance of the ruling, since it secured “the Philippines a vast maritime zone larger than the total land area of the Philippines.” Instead of setting aside the arbitration award, the magistrate called upon the government to consider filing additional arbitration cases against Beijing if the latter continues its non-compliance with the award.
Senior former government officials, including former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who played a key role in the arbitration proceedings, have echoed similar sentiments against the president. Others have openly accused the Duterte administration of soft-pedaling territorial issues in short-sighted exchange for Chinese economic incentives.
Senior defense officials have consistently expressed concern over the prospect of China building structures on the nearby Scarborough Shoal. They have also accused Beijing of plotting to usurp the Benham Rise, which is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. China’s continued reclamation activities and militarization of the Spratly islands, meanwhile, have provoked anxieties of Chinese domination of the area.
Despite Dutetre’s best efforts, the tough-talking leader has failed to calm widespread suspicion and skepticism about China’s intentions among the Filipino defense establishment. In response to that internal pressure Duterte declared to Beijing earlier this year that “there will be a time where I have to confront you about this paper, the arbitral [award].”
That time may come sooner than Duterte prefers, especially if China continues to tighten its military grip on one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. The one-year anniversary of the tribunal ruling that once promised to stall China’s advances in the maritime area has showed that Duterte’s engagement has done little, if anything, to slow Beijing’s expansionist designs.