Will Duterte stand up to China?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte
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By Dung Phan

The Philippines’ top diplomat says he rejected an offer from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to hold negotiations which ignored the ruling of an international tribunal invalidating Beijing’s sovereign claims in the South China Sea.

Shortly afterwards, Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy tweeted, “We were first US elected officials to meet with Duterte. Says he will not trade territorial rights to China. Tribunal decisions non-negotiable.” If the President was planning to build better long-term relations with China, he may have to think again about that mindset.

On the afternoon of July 12, Duterte was irritated, according to one of his closest aides. He felt China was toying with him.” At least, he felt as if China was playing behind his back when Beijing told the Duterte administration what kind of response to the ruling would be acceptable. The Chinese ambassador had dinner with a Filippino minister, giving him a detailed list of commands after Duterte had offered him reassurances earlier the same day.

“Didn’t he trust what I told him?” asked Duterte. “I would have said some of those things, but because the embassy wants me to say them, I won’t.”

The battle of nationalism

To some Filipinos’ disappointment, there was no “victory” or “success” in the country’s first official response to the tribunal. The call for “restraint and sobriety” makes it sound like a concession speech. Yet the Duterte administration is more concerned with ensuring that the result of the arbitration does not lead to any further dispute. The president said he would seek a “soft landing” approach to China by a no “taunt or flaunt” policy.

Duterte knows that when it comes to China, he has to deal with the serious issues of sentiment and nationalism. According to expert on the area, Bill Hayton,” China’s claims in the South China Sea were always more emotional than historical. Beijing is concerned about its international image and the Chinese leadership tends to see that the downsides of being intransigent outweigh its advantages, especially since it wants to be respected as a superpower.”

And Duterte also knows about 80% of Filipinos supported the government’s efforts in getting the ruling. At a restaurant in Manila, a hundred people celebrated with joy and tears, some of whom painted the Philippines’ flags on their faces. On the shore of Manila Bay, protesters released some 1,000 balloons in the white, blue, red and yellow colours of the Philippine flag. The hashtag #Chexit (or China Exit) soon became the number one topic in the country on Twitter with many chanting, “It’s time for President Duterte to fly his jet ski and plant the Philippines flag on disputed islands.”

Domestic priorities

However binding and unchallengeable the PCA’s rulings, it has no enforcement power. And at the centre of the fight for nationalist pride are vulnerable Filipino fishermen who continue to run into Chinese fleets. The government vessels are still blocking them from approaching the disputed Scarborough Shoal two days after the tribunal and they say that coast guards are telling them to “leave this area immediately.”

Fisheries de facto account for about 1% of Philippine GDP. Not a whole lot, but more than a little. And as a leader who is very likely to focus on domestic priorities, Duterte has to be concerned. He often expresses a preference for a foreign policy that creates an international environment most beneficial to achieving his domestic priorities, rather than taking an approach in which foreign policy sticks to a consistent direction.

And his approach does seem effective. Walden Bello, representative in the 14th and 15th congress of the Republic of the Philippines recently said despite his opposition to Duterte on the issue of human rights and due process, “when it comes to securing the national interest of the Philippines, I stand fully behind him.”

However, whether or not the ruling can make a change to national sentiment, the truth is that China is hugely important to the Philippines in terms of economic ties and tourism. It is the country’s largest trading partner, buying a quarter of its exports last year for $19 billion.” In other words, China is a potential source of investment and aid for the kind of reform program Duterte has planned.

Yet it is precisely Philippine nationalism that is likely to prevent him from being too obliged to China. Nearly all Filipinos (91%) express trust in Duterte as the head of the state. Is that trust well-placed? Time, and negotiations, will tell.