Duterte’s China policy isn’t paying off

Author: Renato Cruz De Castro, De La Salle University

In a recent speech, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte conveyed to his countrymen that he expects China will be fair on the South China Sea dispute and that they should eventually accept Beijing as a good neighbour. Duterte’s (misplaced) good faith in China reflects his administration’s appeasement policy on China. This policy involves concerted efforts to foster closer relations with China, coupled with calculated moves to distance the Philippines from the United States and US allies over the South China Sea disputes and other international issues.

Protestors display placards during a rally by leftwing activists outside the Chinese Consulate, to protest Beijing's continued reclamation activities in the South China Sea, in Makati, Metro Manila in the Philippines, 10 February 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro).

The Philippine public does not share President Duterte’s benign view of China. Opposition figures and left-wing organisations have criticised the Duterte administration for not publicly raising alarm and indignation over Chinese efforts to militarise the land features it occupies in the South China Sea.

The Social Weather Stations’ June 2018 nation-wide survey revealed that more than 80 per cent of Filipinos repudiate the administration’s policy of allowing Chinese intrusions in the West Philippine Sea. While most of the respondents approve of the President’s overall performance, they report a negative trust rating of China and reject his appeasement policy in the South China Sea.

The survey showed that 80 per cent of the respondents agree that the Philippines has the right to build up its military capability, especially its navy, in response to China’s intrusions on Philippine-claimed territories in the South China Sea. Seventy-one per cent believe that it is right for the Philippines to bring the issue to international organisations like the United Nations and ASEAN for diplomatic solution.

The Duterte administration’s appeasement policy is based on a quid pro quo with China. President Duterte would unravel his predecessor’s balancing policy against Chinese maritime expansion in exchange for China’s moderation in their actions vis-a-vis the Philippines in the South China Sea and more significantly for Chinese investment and aid. But recent developments indicate that China is not keeping up to its end of the deal.

In early June 2018, the Philippine government issued a formal demand to China asking the China Coast Guard to stay away from the Philippines’ traditional fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal and to stop the harassment of Filipino fishermen off the shoal. This action was triggered by television reports that China Coast Guard personnel are boarding Filipino fishing vessels, inspecting the fishermen’s catch and then confiscating their best catches.

In late July, the Philippine government expressed its concern to China over the increase in offensive Chinese radio warnings against Philippine aircraft and ships flying and sailing near Chinese reclaimed and fortified islands in the South China Sea. A leaked internal Armed Forces of the Philippines report revealed that Philippine Air Force planes patrolling the South China Sea have received at least 46 warnings from Chinese naval outposts in the artificial islands, where powerful communications and surveillance equipment have been installed along with weapons such as anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.

China is also withholding the funds that it promised to President Duterte when he visited Beijing in October 2016. During that visit, President Duterte collected US$24 billion in investment pledges to finance his administration’s five-year infrastructure building program called ‘Build, Build, Build’. But of the US$24 billion pledges made in 2016, US$15 billion were negotiated between private business people that were eventually modified or cancelled. The rest of the projects have been stalled because they are hard to implement such as rail networks and irrigation dams.

In mid-August, a delegation of high-ranking Filipino officials led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez went to Beijing to discuss China’s funding of several infrastructure projects under the administration’s ‘Build, Build, Build’ program. Both sides agreed on a two-stage funding program (first and second baskets) for Chinese loan financing. This means that while Chinese funds would be available to finance the administration’s infrastructure projects, the money will be disbursed on a staggered basis and on Beijing’s terms.

Stung by the Philippine public’s negative view on its appeasement policy and by China’s refusal to keep up its end of the bargain, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano revealed that the Philippines has informed China of four ‘red lines’ in the two countries’ territorial disputes. On 15 August, President Duterte openly criticised China for its island-building activities and called on it to temper its behaviour in the South China Sea. This was his strongest comment on China since he began pursuing an appeasement policy in late 2016.

But China sharply rebuffed Duterte by asserting that it ‘has a right to take necessary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that deliberately get close to or make incursions into the air and waters near China’s relevant islands’. These developments will hopefully make President Duterte reflect on whether it is prudent for his country to pursue an appeasement policy on an emergent power that appears willing to pursue an expansionist policy in the South China Sea at all costs.

Renato Cruz De Castro is Professor in the International Studies Department and holds the Charles Lui Chi Keung Professorial Chair in China Studies at De La Salle University, Manila.