Duterte engaging in risky high-wire act over China and US

October 25, 2016 08:53
Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in July, he has successfully reduced tension in the South China Sea and resumed economic relationship with Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s four-day visit to China was packed with drama, including his hyperbolic assertion that he was separating from the United States and that, from now on, “there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia”.

However, after virtually throwing himself into China’s arms, the Philippine leader returned to his own country and explained that his “separation from the United States” did not mean a break in diplomatic relations.

Indeed, even the defense treaty may remain in place because, he said, “at the end of the day, it is a security matter.”

Since Duterte assumed office in July, he has successfully reduced tension in the South China Sea and, through his China visit, managed to resume economic relationship with Beijing.

Washington has sent Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, to seek clarification of the new Philippines policy.

On Monday, he was quoted as telling the media that the US supports the crackdown on illegal drugs -- something very important to Duterte -- while reiterating the importance of due process and asserted that Washington was ready to honor its commitments.

So far, it seems, the Philippines has come out on top, winning Chinese promises of trade and investment while retaining the support of the US.

Duterte, it seems, is positioning the Philippines so that it receives benefits from both the US and China.

It is possible that Washington may offer to increase its payment for the use of five Philippine bases and be more willing to sell arms.

The Philippines, in effect, is playing the US and China off against each other, to its own benefit.

However, this is a dangerous high-wire act and the Philippines may end up alienating both superpowers.

Media commentaries talked of a reversal by Duterte soon as he left China. There may well be those on the Chinese side who share such sentiments.

However, it is all a question of expectations.

As the Global Times newspaper commented, “Chinese diplomats don’t expect that the Philippines under his presidency will take any radical turns in its relationship with the US, such as terminating their alliance or closing down US bases.”

As long as expectations are kept low, feelings of betrayal can be kept in check.

So far, Chinese officials are pleased by the change from a pro-American president in Manila to one who is openly critical of the US.

It is enough for now that Manila will no longer “dovetail” its foreign policy with that of the US.

And, it appears, Washington is willing to give Manila more diplomatic space.

Russel was quoted as saying that the US wants countries to have their own choices.

In fact, there is little doubt that the Philippine leader has dealt a major blow to the US.

By agreeing not to mention the decision of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague last July, which ruled there was no legal basis to China’s South China Sea claims, Duterte has undermined the American-led campaign to put pressure on China to observe the rule of law.

To China’s satisfaction, the Philippines agreed that territorial and jurisdictional disputes should be addressed “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned”.

The previous Philippine government had contended that negotiations had been tried and failed.

But while tension has been lowered, the territorial disputes remain and it is unclear how or if they will be resolved.

China certainly is unlikely to hand over anything that it controls, such as Scarborough Shoal, although it may well agree to allow fishing in the vicinity by the Philippines.

It is now inconceivable that China would take any action to turn Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal into another artificial island that could be militarized.

Even an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea is now highly unlikely since China’s sense of vulnerability has been reduced.

But the territorial disputes between the Philippines and China remain.

And their resolution appears as remote as ever. In bilateral negotiations, Manila – if it doesn’t cite the arbitral tribunal’s decision – will have a weak hand, especially if it doesn’t have the whole-hearted support of the US as an ally.

Duterte is certainly right that his China visit marks a turning point. The question is whether the Philippines will be able to continue to play China and the US off against each other.

This is a high-wire act and both China and the US play for keeps. Duterte must realize he doesn’t have a safety net in place.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.