With Duterte, will the South China Sea be on the brink of war?

Photo: Facebook page of Rodrigo Duterte

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Just days after the victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippine presidential election, the Philippines and France have signed a defence cooperation deal seeking to modernise the Philippine military. This presents the latest defence deal that the Philippines have signed, following significant upgrade of its military relations with the US earlier this year, which brought US military presence back on to Philippine soil.

The French deal, negotiated since 2014, was of course done by the administration of the incumbent president, Benigno Aquino III, rather than Duterte who did not have a hand in it.

With the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the court in The Hague which rules on cases under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), on the Philippines’ case against China’s claims in the South China Sea, news such as this French military deal has stirred up more anxiety in the region than would normally be the case.

But how would a President Duterte handle the fallout after the court’s ruling? Duterte will be sworn into office at the end of June.

Duterte’s stance on the China has been hard to pinpoint, as with his stances on most key national issues. He has at times struck a surprisingly friendly tone towards China with regard to the South China Sea dispute, as ASEAN Today has previously covered. This flies in the face of what would be expected from an ultra populist politician.

Yet at other times, he has disparaged China, saying he would ride a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea, and plant the flag of the Philippines there.

It is more likely the case that Mr Duterte holds no clearly thought out policy towards China, nor on the South China Sea issue.

This, coupled with his penchant for sensational populism, can only be the perfect recipe for disaster, in which accidental war is not out of the question.

China: gathering international support

Meanwhile, China has been upping its diplomatic ante in the anticipation of the ruling of the court in The Hague.

China’s latest diplomatic coup on the South China Sea, as the state news agency Xinhua has brandished it to be, is the support of Arab states on China’s stance in the South China Sea, gained apparently on the occasion of a ministerial meeting of the China-Arab Cooperation Forum held in Doha, Qatar. This perhaps borders on the outlandish, since the Arab states in question have little to do with the South China Sea and are too far geographically to be of relevance.

Last month, China declared it had obtained a “consensus agreement” – a highly controversial one – with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, which stated that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be left to individual states rather than be dealt by ASEAN as a whole.

China has also won moral support from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that outsiders should not get involved in the South China Sea conflict.

More sophisticated is Beijing’s measured legal argument as to why it does not accept the Hague court’s jurisdiction over the South China Sea case, couched in the language of the rule of law.

Ouyang Yujin, a senior Chinese diplomat, recently warned that possibly 30 other countries could “become embroiled in a case that they are completely unaware of”, as a result of the Philippines v China case starting a legal precedent.

China, along with those 30 other countries experiencing similar maritime disputes like Russia and China, are signatories of UNCLOS, and have also declared they do not accept compulsory arbitration on cases concerning maritime boundaries delimitation.

The Philippines’ case on the South China Sea, as China argues, is in effect an issue of sovereignty – which UNCLOS and the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague are not legally empowered to rule on.

These latest remarks from China is a further sharpening of its long held stance that it does not accept the jurisdiction of the Hague court over the specific case brought on by the Philippines.

Obama in Vietnam: what military aid could he announce?

The US’s own diplomatic coup to the latest in the South China Sea dispute could come next week (22 May), when US President Barack Obama visits Vietnam. It will be his first visit to that country, although two previous sitting US presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, had visited Vietnam in 2000 and 2006.

It has been speculated that the US could offer some form of military aid, including the possibility of ending the ban on lethal weapons sales to Hanoi, enacted during the Vietnam War. Vietnam could then use the weaponry as a deterrent to Beijing, in the context of the militarisation of the South China Sea and its islets.

All of these developments will raise the temperature in the South China Sea. It may not push the countries involved to the brink of war any time soon, if good sense prevails. But the number of moving parts in the situation currently, and the rise of demagogue politicians such as in the Philippines, the region has good reason to be worried about peace and prosperity.