Filipinos ask Duterte about maritime feud: Are you with us?

Exercise Malabar 2015: The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt transits alongside the Indian fleet tanker INS Shakti during a replenishment-at-sea exercise as the Japanese Maritime Self-defense Force destroyer JS Fuyuzuki approaches. US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

By Dung Phan

Yesterday (30 June), Rodrigo Duterte took his oath as the 16th President of the Philippines, starting his six-year term. With a decision from the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration to be announced on 12 July, how Duterte decides the path forward with reard to tensions over the South China Sea will be thrust to centre-stage.

At a business forum in Davao City last week, Duterte told an audience of several hundred people that he had asked the United States Ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg: “Are you with us, or are you not with us?”

The meeting between Duterte and Goldberg marked the first time he formally received a US government official. Duterte had been acknowledging “hatred” for the US in an interview last year, since the incident involving Michael Terrence Meiring, a US citizen who was charged with possession of explosives back in the year 2002, but had fled the Philippines.

He expressed his outrage that the US had purportedly helped a criminal suspect leave the country, without regard to the law of the Philippines. Fourteen years have passed, but Duterte is still angry.

He has openly declared his opposition to the joint Philippine-US Balikatan exercises, and has refused to allow the use of the Davao City’s old airport as a base for US drone programme.

“I do not want it. I do not want trouble and killings. They will only add to the problem,” he said. In April, he told the US ambassador to “shut their mouths”, and dared the US to cut ties with the Philippines. “Go ahead and sever it,” Duterte stressed, referring to US-Philippine diplomatic relations.

Despite the Meiring affair and drone proposal, the Philippines has still been the US’s closest ally in Southeast Asia. Recently, the Philippines permitted the Pentagon to place troops and weapons at bases on their soil. American forces have also assisted Philippine soldiers with hunting the Abu Sayyaf Group, the most violent of the Islamist separatist groups operating in southern Philippines.

In response to Duterte’s request to defend the Philippines in the South China Sea, Goldberg said: “”Only if you are attacked”. It remains ambivalent how the US would define an attack here. But in fact, China’s occupation of Scarborough Shoal began on 10 April 2012, after they prevented the Philippine Navy from arresting Chinese fishermen who were harvesting endangered marine species. Chinese boats accompanied by larger vessels have since barred Filipino fishermen from entering the area.

The US State Department said it would not comment on the details of diplomatic conversations. Duterte, however, wanted to push the US to clarify their choice: “Can you match the offer? Because if you cannot match the offer, I will accept the goodwill of China.”

The “goodwill”, as Duterte pointed out, included China’s offer of financing railway projects in the Philippines. In Duterte’s view, economic cooperation – Chinese capital and infrastructure investment – could speed up development in the Philippines.

“Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa and let’s set aside disagreements for a while,” Duterte said to China. “Build us a rail for Mindanao, build us a railway from Manila to Bicol, I will be happy, let us not fight. Build us a railway because no nation on earth ever progressed without a railway.”

Strategic or confusing?

Before and during the Philippine presidential campaign, Duterte accused the then incumbent President Benigno Aquino III and Senator Antonio Trillanes of selling out to China. He also said he would ride a jet ski and plant a Philippine flag on one of the seven man-made islands China had built. He made aggressive statements, mentioning that with the aid of foreign allies, he will defend the interests of Philippines even at the cost of war with China.

When asked about his position on the South China Sea disputes with China after the election, Duterte said, “I would say to China, do not claim anything her – and I will not insist also that it is ours”. Again, this presents a drastic break from his predecessor, who proclaimed a hard-line South China Sea policy of “What is ours is ours.”

It is possible that what seems inconsistent in the Duterte’s approach to the conflict in the South China Sea is strategic. But what does it all mean, when in one instance he talks about setting disputes aside in exchange for Chinese investment on major infrastructure projects in the Philippines, and in the next instance, he talks about planting the Philippine flag himself in the Spratly Islands?

The problem with Duterte’s approach is that it may be confusing, at least for Filipinos who voted for him. Some of them started to question Duterte on social media, and expressing their doubts over his geopolitical strategy: “Filipinos ask Duterte on sea feud, are you with us?”

Whether or not Duterte is pro-China, it should be noted that all the approaches – joint exploration, aid for harmonious relations with China, and bilateral negotiations with China – have been tried before. And some had ended up causing great damage for the Philippines.