By Perry Diaz
Since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency of the Philippines, he had demonstrated a clear bias for China and – by his own words – hatred of the United States.
It did not then come as a surprise that he did not pursue the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling that China has no “historical rights” based on the “nine-dash line” map. China rejected the ruling. Duterte set aside the PCA’s award, saying that he has no plans to raise the arbitral ruling right now.
Satisfied with President Duterte’s decision to not pursue the arbitral ruling, China showered the country with infrastructure, economic, and military aid in billions of dollars. Duterte was so happy that he declared that China loves the Philippines and the Filipino people. China’s “charm offensive,” which includes signing a six- year development plan, paid off and Duterte was happy as a clam. “China is our friend,” he declared.
But in spite of China’s expression of “love,” there are two disturbing things that are happening in the country. The first is that China continues to provide weapons to the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which is becoming stronger – and bolder — in fighting the government. The second is that China remains the biggest – if not the only – source of illegal drugs that are flooding the country. The Philippine National Police (PNP) admitted that it’s helpless in stopping the flow of the illegal drug “shabu” into the country.
Last March, a series of events occurred that has taken the attention of the world. First, it was reported in the news that Xiao Jie, mayor of China’s Sansha City, was quoted as saying that preparations were underway to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal. Duterte reacted by saying that the Philippines cannot stop China from building on the shoal for now. “We can’t stop China from doing this thing,” he said.
But Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio disagreed. He sternly warned that such structures might bolster China’s claims in the disputed waters. He said that the installation of “radar stations” in the shoal will complete Chinese coverage of the West Philippine Sea and be used to enforce its “nine-dash line.” He reminded Duterte that the “President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, which is tasked by the Constitution to defend the country’s territory.”
Carpio recommended that Duterte can fulfill his constitutional duty by doing any or all of five things, one of which is: “Ask the United States to declare that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory for purposes of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty since the shoal has been part of Philippine territory even during the American colonial period.” With what is happening in North Korea right now, the U.S. might see this as an opportunity to bolster her alliances with five treaty allies (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia) that form the First Island Chain.
A few days later, Duterte said that China gave her word not to undertake construction on Scarborough Shoal. He was quoted in the news as saying, “I got word from the Chinese government, that in deference to our friendship, they want to preserve the relations, do not turn it sour, they are not building in Panatag. I told them thank you… they said nothing [will be built] on Panatag, [they] will never do it there.” But “never” is something that China often says but rarely does. We’ve heard her say that too often in her “salami-slicing” tactics in the Spratly archipelago since she took possession of the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in 1995. She built a small structure on stilts over it and told the Philippines that it was merely a “fishermen’s shelter.” Today, a large fortification is built on it.
Secret undersea exploration
But it didn’t take too long before China made her next step forward. In my column, “Appeasing the Chinese Dragon” (April 7, 2017), I wrote: “In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise. The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits.
“During a press conference last March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right but she cannot take the region as her own territory.
“The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sought clarification on what Geng said. In response, the Chinese informed DFA that they recognize the Philippines’ sovereign rights and they are not disputing Benham Rise.”
Obviously, it’s another instance of China’s “two steps forward, one step backward” strategy she’s been using to expand her control over the islands in the South China Sea (SCS). China’s next move would most likely be to propose a joint Philippines-China exploration of Benham Rise. This reminds us of the tactics she used when the Philippines, China, and Vietnam held the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in the Spratlys in 2005-2008. It gave China an “open window” to claim the Recto Bank. Indeed, as soon as then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts signed the JSMU, China started claiming Recto Bank.
Flash of enlightenment
Last April 6, Duterte must have seen a flash of enlightenment. Suddenly, he turned 180 degrees from his position that the Philippines is safe from Chinese imperialist expansion for as long as he kowtows to China’s powers-that-be and wouldn’t challenge China’s encroachment of Philippine territory. He ordered the Armed Forces to “occupy” the nine islands in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratlys and personally plant a Philippine flag there to indicate the country’s sovereignty over these islands. He also said he wants to “officially claim” Benham Rise and change its name to “Philippine Ridge.”
It is expected that Duterte’s drastic policy shift would set off a series of tectonic geopolitical ramblings, particularly from China. It would also send a strong signal to Uncle Sam that Duterte is now willing to play ball with U.S. President Donald Trump and his generals, who seem to be ready to retake America’s role as the world’s preeminent superpower. Indeed, it would serve America’s national interests in the Pacific and also strengthen the weakest link – the Philippines — in the First Island Chain; thus, preventing China from breaking out into the Philippine Sea where Benham Rise is located.
What the future bodes
But the question is: How would China react to Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy that is now evolving into a foreign policy independent of Chinese influence? Further, if China attacks the troops deployed to the nine Kalayaan islands, how would Duterte defend them? Would the U.S. defend them? If so, would it start a war between the U.S. and China? And as a consequence, would it ignite World War III?
There are no answers to these questions yet. However, it elicited a number of conspiracy theories. One of them says that China ordered Duterte to occupy the islands to give the Chinese a pretense to attack the country. Another theory says that Duterte wants to form a China-backed revolutionary government and eventually convert the country into a Cuban-style communist society. Another one says that the Philippines would be balkanized into several countries or territories with Luzon and Palawan becoming provinces of China, Mindanao becoming a Muslim republic aligned with Malaysia, and the creation of a Republic of the Visayas under the protectorate of the U.S. It might sound outlandish but when the country cannot get her act together, breaking it up might just be the convenient solution to a complex – and apparently unsolvable problem — just like what happened to Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
At the end of the day, Duterte’s bold move in the Spratlys might just be what the country needs. Or, could it be that he is just posturing and would back off if China comes out strong against his move?