After the warming up of Philippine-China relations in the early months of Duterte’s presidency, the relationship is now stuck in limbo as the South China Sea issue rises to be a thorny issue once again.
The Philippines Defence Secretary Lorenzana along with other top officials recently visited the USS Carl Vinson, a mighty aircraft carrier that is patrolling the international waters of the South China Sea. Duterte has repeatedly said that he wants U.S. troops out of the country. This visit shows that Duterte is still authorizing high-level engagements between Philippine officials with the U.S. military.
Philippine-China relations hit a wall
Recently, China’s commerce minister abruptly postponed a critical official trip that would have led to the signing of 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars. This postponement came after Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Yasay media briefing comment after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting.
Yasay said, “The ministers have expressed grave concern as well, in so far as what they saw and perceived as the militarization of certain areas in the South China Sea.”
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “We hope that Mr. Yasay can follow the consensus reached by the two leaders and the shared desire of regional countries, exercise prudence, and make concrete efforts to uphold China-Philippines relations and regional peace and stability.”
Early this year, the Philippines filed a note verbale to protest China’s installation of military weapons on seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. One of those islands is part of the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Philippine-American relations are as strong as ever
With Trump at the helm, perhaps Duterte’s pivot to China will not reach a full pivot. Murray Hiebert, Deputy Director of the South East Asia Program of the CSIS, said, “It’s interesting that Duterte stopped his harsh criticism of the US, but the US also stopped its harsh criticisms of the Philippines…They are consciously changing the tone.”
Earlier this month, the Philippine armed forces got hold of new counterinsurgency equipment from the America, highlighting the decades of strong military ties between the two nations.
The Philippines will continue to engage America and China
Duterte has no choice but to engage both countries. He knows that despite his attempt to pivot to China, eight out of 10 Filipinos want him to assert the country’s claims on the West Philippine Sea especially after winning the historic arbitration case in Hague.
It is unlikely that China will back down on its claims in the disputed islands. China can avoid tensions with the Philippines by keeping to their promise of not constructing anything at Scarborough Shoal. However, that could be the most that it can do as it continues to assert its military presence in the South China Sea.
Duterte knows that the country cannot put up a military fight with China, but he knows that he can get them to fund his infrastructure projects by pushing for bilateral discussions regarding the disputed islands.
As for America, he knows it is the only ally that can protect them sufficiently from any Chinese military attack. He will swallow his personal distrust of America and will leverage this relationship for further benefits to the Philippines, including counterterrorism assistance. He knows that the military will lose trust with him if the country cut military ties with America.