The Philippines navigates multiple channels in the South China Sea

The nation’s president Duterte needs to balance domestic interests with maritime security and relations with China, the US and regional powers

Nafisa Halim
February 16, 2022
The Philippines navigates multiple channels in the South China Sea
Coast guard personnel conduct maritime exercise near Thitu island in the disputed South China Sea. Photo courtesy of Philippine coast Guard (PCG)/AFP

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines faces a daunting political task resulting from his nation’s location. Duterte must balance his relationship with other nations making territorial claims and plays for influence in the South China Sea while ensuring Filipino interests are upheld. 

As a member of ASEAN and a claimant state to the South China Sea’s contested waters, the Philippines is required to engage in diplomatic navigation between the emerging presence of major and middle powers. 

China’s sweeping claims and aggressive behaviour in the maritime region, which has a wealth of resources, have become a cause for concern among neighbouring claimants in the disputed waters and the ten member states of ASEAN. 

Increasingly forceful conduct by China also lays the foundation for an increased presence by the Philippines’ external partners including the United States, which has created a superpower rivalry in the region while drawing in middle powers such as Japan.

The apparent attempt to contain China also involves the recent creation of a trilateral security pact between the US, the United Kingdom and Australia.

The dynamic between the US and China is at the forefront of today’s security climate in the Philippines. Under Duterte, the 70-year alliance with the US is at risk while the Philippines has redefined its approach toward China. 

The burgeoning geo-strategic rivalry between Beijing and Washington, D.C., also has fostered more players in the region, prompting Duterte to circumnavigate the current geopolitical landscape to remain prevalent and friendly with other nations.

The Philippines filed an arbitration case in 2013 against China under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in response to China’s claims in the South China Sea. 

Duterte’s rise to power in June 2016 coincided with a ruling in favour of the Philippines by a UN arbitral tribunal, which dismissed China’s historic claims within certain areas. Since then, Duterte has endeavoured to preserve a balanced and friendly alliance with China. 

The strategy departs from the pro-US administration stance of his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. With attractive deals offered by China, Duterte’s government can accommodate domestic interests such as economic projects and vaccine supply, which are imperative to maintaining political leadership. 

The bilateral relationship between China and the Philippines in the past five years has been tainted with uncertainties due to Duterte’s foreign policy. This is reflected in his unrelenting stance on the South China Sea while trying to remain amicable.

While the Philippines foreign affairs secretary, Teodoro Locsin Jr., engages in a war of words with Beijing over China’s assertive behaviour, Duterte insists cabinet members refrain from publically issuing comments on the issue. 

More than 200 Chinese boats lingered within the Philippines’ maritime zones in March. Similar incidents occurred frequently in the past year, but Duterte remains rooted to his decision to bolster positive ties with China.

This friendly foreign policy stance is key to Duterte’s 2017 ‘Build! Build! Build!’ development project. As China pledged to invest $24 billion to increase trade and investment opportunities in the Philippines, Duterte gained a confidence boost for the development project, which is significant to delivering his presidential promises. 

Pledges offered to the Philippines are examples of China’s charm offensive to enhance political clout and influence foreign policy in areas that would include shelving offensive territorial disputes that may displease China. 

The Covid-19 pandemic compelled Duterte to remain dependent on China for vaccine supply and economic development. As of December, China delivered additional Sinovac Biotech vaccines to the Philippines and remained the country’s biggest vaccine supplier. 

Duterte acknowledged his country’s vaccine debt to China but said some things are not subject to compromise. He expressed hope China would understand his responsibility to protect Filipino rights including maritime sovereignty and balance domestic needs while also upholding regional interests. 

Philippine coastguard ship BRP Cabra (front) monitoring Chinese vessels at Sabina Shoal, a South China Sea outcrop claimed by Manila located about 135 kilometres (73 nautical miles) west of the Philippine island of Palawan. Photo: courtesy of Philippine Coastguard/AFP

Duterte’s pivot-to-China approach seemingly comes at the expense of a weakening alliance with the US, including a series of attempts by Duterte to terminate the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the countries because of his personal dissatisfaction. Yet Duterte has retained the VFA as a means of thanking the US for vaccines despite his on-again, off-again attempts at termination. 

In recent months Duterte swayed in his commitment to the VFA with the US, but has now cancelled plans for its termination as he nears the end of his term and realises his pro-China policy has not met its full potential. 

China has continued wooing Duterte with supplies and attractive investments. Simultaneously, the administration of US president Joe Biden continues to reiterate its rejection of China’s illegitimate regional expansion and reaffirm the longstanding alliance between the US and the Philippines. 

Duterte needs to navigate cautiously to balance his relationship between external powers to fully secure Filipino interests. 

The multiplayer landscape surrounding the Philippines grew in September when the US, UK and Australia signed a new trilateral security pact, AUKUS. The agreement, which provides Australia with the technology to build nuclear-powered submarines, was formed partly on the premise of deterring China’s maritime influence. 

US secretary of state Antony Blinken arrived in Australia on 9 February for meetings between the so-called Quad countries including the US, Australia, India and Japan. The trip was Blinken’s first to Australia since the AUKUS agreement was announced. En route to Melbourne, Blinken alluded to Chinese assertiveness and specifically mentioned maritime security while highlighting the regional benefits of cooperation with the US.

“The Quad is becoming a powerful mechanism for delivering, helping to vaccinate a big part of the world, getting a lot of vaccines out there, strengthening maritime security to push back against aggression and coercion in the Indo-Pacific region, working together on emerging technologies and making sure that they can be used in positive ways, not negative ways, and an increasingly broad and deep agenda,” Blinken said.

He also mentioned ASEAN as one of the “traditional alliances” maintained by the US, along with NATO. “[W]e’re a Pacific nation. The Pacific part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy is vitally important,” Blinken said in part.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens to a question during a press conference at the end of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) foreign ministers meeting in Melbourne on February 11, 2022. Photo: William West/AFP

Philippines foreign secretary Locsin issued a statement welcoming the AUKUS pact. He also reflected on the imbalance of power and military possession of Southeast Asia nations, individually and collectively, in the face of Chinese power. 

Locsin’s endorsement contrasted the views of neighbouring Indonesia and Malaysia. Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, senior researcher Evan Laksmana said, “Overall, this is a deeper problem of [Indonesia] becoming a strategic spectator.” 

Duterte retreated in September from his country’s initial support for the tripartite deal, deploying Locsin to express concerns over a regional nuclear arms race. 

Duterte’s decision to backtrack likely is linked to the region’s growing resistance against the notion that the trilateral AUKUS alliance contradicts ASEAN centrality and a nuclear-free zone, which in turn undermines the motive of a 1971 declaration signed by ASEAN members called the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality.

Over the years, the Philippines has continued to strengthen its military and economic cooperation with middle powers such as Japan. Duterte and Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga have expressed shared security concerns surrounding China’s development in the South China Sea. 

By engaging Japan, Duterte acquires an alternative source of public security goods including defence tools, maritime security equipment and economic investments to help him to hedge against the two superpowers.

This compels Duterte to conserve a balanced relationship with major and middle powers in the South China Sea to maintain the Philippines’ domestic interests and his leadership. 

Although China is able to attract the Philippines with desirable opportunities aligning with Duterte’s goals and the Philippines’ need to uphold regional concerns and solidarity, he also will need to consider the adverse implications of bandwagoning with China. 

In a region that is fast becoming a multiplayer field, a show of pragmatism by Duterte is vital in framing his nation’s foreign policy. In doing so, Duterte can navigate the South China Sea aims held by major and middle powers while upholding Filipino interests.

Nafisa Halim is a research associate at Global Awareness & Impact Alliance with interests in South China Sea territorial disputes. She holds a master’s degree in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS University of London and a bachelors from Queen Mary University of London.

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