Is Duterte marching to the drums of war over the South China Sea?

Duterte’s erratic foreign policy decisions threaten to destabilise the intricate relationship between the US and China. 

By Oliver Ward, edited by Francesca Ross

President Rodrigo Duterte’s flip flopping between Chinese and US interests is pushing the Philippines towards a foreign policy crisis.

There are many flamboyant examples of his policy U-turns. He recently told the world he would occupy nine or ten vacant reefs in the South China Sea and make an official visit himself to plant a flag. This simply cannot happen.

No new reefs would be occupied, said a swift follow-up statement from the Department of Defence.  The Philippines would continue to hold the nine reefs it already occupied and Duterte would not be visiting. Officials added that no new construction projects were planned, saying “we will only upgrade the facilities for our personnel there”.

Duterte’s position on the territorial dispute has always been confused  

July 2016: A tribunal held in The Hague rules that China has no legal basis for its wide claims on land and resources in the South China Sea. Beijing rejects the ruling.

Duterte had a difficult choice following the controversial tribunal decision. He knew that asserting the rightful Filipino claim to the territory would have forced Beijing to aggressively protect her interests in the region.

There are an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and seven billion barrels of oil underneath the waves, say World Bank estimates. China would not have given these up without a fight.

Duterte understood he would have no chance of success in a military confrontation without US intervention. He told reporters that in the event of a war with China “we will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation”.

July 2016: John Kerry, the former US Secretary of State, visits the Philippines.

August 2016: US Department of State deputy spokesperson, Mark C. Toner criticised Duterte over reports of human rights abuses. The Filipino leader could no longer felt confident the US would back the Philippines in a fight.

October 2016: Duterte announces a separation from the US. It is now the Philippines, Russia and China “against the world”, he claimed. American troops should leave the Philippines, he said.

The decision to break with the US made sense economically. Obama’s State department was criticising Duterte’s war on drugs and investigating allegations of human rights abuses. China could instead offer the Philippines an unconditional partnership for economic development and a replacement for American development aid. The price of this support? A shift away from the US and abandoning Filipino sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea.

October 2016: China pledges US$15 billion in Philippine investment.

December 2016: The Government of the Philippines files a protest with Chinese diplomats over a continued military buildup on the Spratly Islands.

Duterte’s next problem was managing public opinion. A survey showed that 84% of Filipinos wanted the country’s leadership to pursue rights over the South China Sea. Only 38% of the population trusted China but 76% trusted the Americans. Had Duterte made the wrong choice in coming out for Beijing?

December 2016: The US defers a major aid package to the Philippines while human rights abuses are investigated.

January 2017: Chinese officials pledge to cooperate on 30 development projects in the Philippines worth US$3.7 billion.

March 2017: Duterte publicly criticises America for not doing enough to prevent China usurping Philippine territories in the region.

April 2017: Duterte orders his military to occupy all Philippines-claimed islands in the South China Sea. He claims he will visit the region and raise the Philippine flag over the disputed Thitu Island himself.

Duterte later took back this pledge saying Beijing told him not to do it. “They said, do not go there in the meantime, just do not go there please,” he explained.

April 2017: Duterte’s U-turn is complete. He reverses his decision to visit the island and reassures his friends in Beijing by stating “China can relax. We will not go to war with you.”

May 2017: Duterte has a projected state visit to China.

Duterte’s political decision is understandable. He must walk a political tightrope to balance his nation’s economic interests with nationalist concerns over sovereignty. This manifests itself as flip flopping between two major superpowers. He must appease China to get aid and investment, then run back to the US to show his public that he is not China’s puppet.

China knows Duterte is stuck in a difficult situation and has become increasingly assertive in its claims to assets in the region. This approach, although clever and pragmatic, is causing sparks to fly. Any one of these could ignite a major global conflict.

Duterte’s indecisive foreign policy is bringing the region to the brink of war

Duterte is an intelligent man and must realise his actions are threatening to destroy American hegemony in Southeast Asia. The Chinese government want to use partnerships with the Philippines to break the American hold on the region. The US wants to avoid this at all costs.

The Philippines holds some of the only US airbases close enough to allow fighter jets to reach Chinese airspace. This is an important bargaining chip in the currently tense diplomatic situation in Asia-Pacific. Duterte has been using this to gamble on greater engagement from both sides but his dangerous game may soon be over.

The drums of war are not on the doorstep yet, they are certainly audible in the distance. Duterte marches to his own drum but his erratic foreign policy decisions are lining two titans up opposite each other. When they collide, the consequences could be disastrous.