Is Duterte choosing China over the US in the South China Sea?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

Duterte is thawing Filipino relations with China, isolating the US in the process. But is Duterte forsaking his alliance with the US to form stronger ties with China, in turn helping Beijing’s bid to claim hegemony in the South China Sea?

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By Rasa Sarwari

The South China Sea is a vital trade route for most of Asia, where nearly $5 trillion USD of commodities passes through every year. At the same time, large oil and gas reserves lie beneath its waves, making it a hotbed of tension between regional actors. Subsequently, China continues to expand its influence throughout the area to obtain hegemony over this vital trade route.

In the past several years China has reclaimed thousands of islands in the sea, turning many of them into military outposts, despite the fact that a myriad of the latter islands lie within the maritime boundaries of Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In light of China’s relentless ambition to claim the zone for themselves, the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines have fallen prey to China’s continued desire for territorial supremacy.

Duterte thawing Chinese relations

For the past couple of years, Chinese military vessels and fishing boats have hovered around the outcrop and rumours have spread that China is planning to establish a military outpost in the remote location.

However, since President Duterte took office last spring China has held off on its plans to claim the island, instead Beijing is watching closely as the Filipino leader has taken a tough stance against China’s maritime rival in the region, the United States.  Duterte’s continued aggression and contempt against America has swayed Chinese officials to seek a more diplomatic and welcoming approach with President Duterte. The intention seems to be to win his favour and distance him from his allies in Washington.

Chinese political analysts such as Zhang Baohui, a professor at Lingnan University, have stated “it would be irrational to build [the Scarborough shoal] into a fortress now”, as “the [Chinese] government would like the Philippines to at least remain neutral in the rivalry between the United States and China”.

President Duterte’s own rivalry with the United States has intensified recently, leading to the decision last week to end joint US-Filipino military drills.  During a meeting with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi, Duterte said this week’s manoeuvres “will be the last military exercise … [that is] jointly, Philippines-U.S., the last one”. Moreover, during his visit to Vietnam President Duterte revealed his intentions on creating “new alliances for trade and commerce” with Russia and China, while also stating he didn’t wish to “hold war games again, which China does not want”.

China’s intention

Despite Duterte’s thawing of relations with China, the international community is still outraged at Chinese activity in the South China Sea. Additionally, many American political analysts are worried about China’s development of military bases on the three Spratly islands, which have enabled China to garner a force of up to 17,000 troops and hundreds of aircraft. That is a military force large enough to thwart any US military intervention in the region.

Consequently, if China were to claim the Scarborough Shoal, it would have access to a deep water lagoon that covers 60 square miles, allowing them to create their largest military base yet in the South China Sea. Moreover, a Chinese military base there would “enable China to project military power across the South China Sea from a triangle of bases formed by the shoal, the Spratly archipelago to its south and the Paracel Islands farther to the west” stated Mr Shugart, a warfare officer of the US Navy. As such, the importance of the strategic spot is clearly apparent to China’s leadership.

Duterte plans to visit China next month looking for new commercial and trade ties; a visit which has angered the US, as they see their foothold in the South China Sea slipping. With this visit, Duterte is changing the political dynamics in the region, paving the way for increased Chinese presence and influence.