Duterte’s South China Sea Geopolitics: Something new or just an act?
In the United States, people are worried about the possibility of Donald Trump’s success in the election; whereas on the other side of the world, the Americans have already started to worry about the “Donald Trump” of the Philippines—the newly elected president Rodrigo Duterte, who is also known for giving provocative speeches. This new leader of one of America’s most important allies in Southeast Asia is quickly deviating from the beaten path: Duterte has been berating the US and its South China Sea policies openly. In fact, his actions have spoken even louder than his words: during his most recent official visit to China, he announced that he will “separate” from the US, both “economically and militarily”. China embraced these remarks with full enthusiasm, with both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state-owned media in China depicting Duterte’s visit as “a restoration of the traditional friendship between the two countries”, after which both parties immediately signed a series of trade agreements. Does this mean that China will be able to embrace a totally friendly Philippines? Is the US losing its battle to influence the South China Sea?
Measured in any way, Duterte’s deviation from the US has posed a threat to the original “balance” maintained by the US and its allies in South China Sea. The blatant word “separation” that the Filipino president used astounded and confused the US, as the spokesperson of the US State Department demanded Duterte to clarify his rhetoric during a press conference on October 20th. Japan, following the US example, also asked Duterte to be clear on his foreign policies. In the past, the US has never been so “nervous” about its allies in the South China Sea, not to mention issuing a demand for clarification so quickly. The rather drastic reaction of the US suggests that it is deeply worried about the future situation in the South China Sea, and that the balance of power in the region might be damaged, or even sabotaged.
Should both the Philippines and Vietnam soften their attitudes towards China in the South China Sea, the US will suffer a major blow to its regional power.
By contrast, China seems to be the biggest winner by these circumstances. Since Duterte mentioned “separation” from the US in terms of not only “economy”, but also “military”, Beijing and Manila may well join hands in a military exercise in the South China Sea one day—just as the PLA navy did with the Russians in October. Moreover, as an important section of the “First Island Chain”, should the Philippines lean towards China, it may become the first fallen domino and trigger a chain reaction in the region. In fact, on October 25th, Vietnam for the first time in modern history had allowed a Chinese battleship to enter and dock at the Cam Rahn Bay, an important naval port facing the South China Sea. This could certainly be a sign of a warmer China-Vietnam relations. Should both the Philippines and Vietnam soften their attitudes towards China in the South China Sea, the US will suffer a major blow to its regional power, and would be unable to limit China’s expansion of power.
Another important player in this drama is Russia, which Duterte has openly appealed to for help, both in his speech in Beijing and meeting with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Russia has always been interested in participating in the South China Sea as a “newcomer”, and it is reluctant to forego the precious chance provided by Duterte. Russia’s joint military exercise with China is a large step forward for Putin to project Russian influence on the smaller players in the region. Furthermore, Russia also has a good relationship with Vietnam historically, dating back to when it was still the Soviet Union. In fact, the Cam Rhan Bay port that received the Chinese navy two days ago was a Soviet military base back in 1975, as a sign of the Soviet-Vietnam communist alliance. Given the possible chaotic situation followed by Duterte’s deviation, Russia may well seek cooperation with the Philippines and re-rent the Cam Rhan Bay as the Russian navy station, making the issues in the region more complex and out of US control.
“We have seen this too often, it’s just like a fake divorce between a couple trying to receive housing benefits, and they (the Philippines and US) will ‘get married’ again once Duterte has received benefits from China”.
However, interestingly enough, compared to the optimistic rhetoric of the Chinese government and official media, net users in China are generally suspicious of Duterte’s real purpose. As one of them points out in a rather humorous Weibo comment: “We have seen this too often, it’s just like a fake divorce between a couple trying to receive housing benefits, and they (the Philippines and US) will ‘get married’ again once Duterte has received benefits from China”. Teng Jianqun, a scholar at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, argued that the Philippines would not really “separate” from the United States; after all, it is highly unlikely that the US president Barack Obama will get tough on the Philippines in his remaining office time, which is less than three months.
The Philippines is significantly weaker than China and the US in the South China Sea, and its geopolitical reality makes it unable to be dependent on one and ignore the other, especially given China’s increasing focus on the South China Sea. Former Philippines President Benigno Aquino III implemented the strategy of fully leaning on the US, and consequently faced China’s economic sanctions and even narrower space to operate in the South China Sea. Duterte saw this and is changing the strategy so as to play off the two powers on a more balanced basis. However, the Philippines’ economy depends on the agricultural export heavily, and China is the largest market in the region. Therefore, the seemingly exaggerated attitude of Duterte is actually driven by his desperate need of improving the economic conditions, which is a rational choice under the current circumstance.
Additionally, Duterte flew to Japan after his trip to China, explaining to the Japanese government that the term “separation” applies only to economic affairs, and it is impossible for the Philippines to cut its ties with the US, although he did mention a “separation in military” in Beijing. Japan is America’s closest ally in the Asia Pacific region, and Duterte is trying to send a message via Japan to US that it will not let go of the alliance with the US, leaving a more flexible space for future communication with Washington. Duterte is putting his eggs in both baskets to get a better deal and a more prominent status in the region, which is much more pragmatic than Aquino’s “all in” on the Americans.
Ever since the Cold War, when smaller countries joined the faction of the two superpowers, they frequently became sacrifices of the struggle between the US and Soviet Union, as can be seen in Asia, East Europe, Africa and Latin America. Today, as China is gradually taking the place of the Soviet Union, at least in East Asia, neighboring countries should think of a better way out for themselves. Relying too much on one side will only result in the hostility of the other, so it is natural for countries like Philippines to find a third way for itself, which avoids directly confronting either of the two powers. All in all, the original “balance” maintained by the US in the South China Sea may be changing, but it is not time for China to be too optimistic, nor for the US to be too pessimistic.