Published daily by the Lowy Institute

South China Sea: the Philippine fissure

Rodrigo Duterte is still to resolve tensions between accommodating China and maintaining strong US ties.

US and Philippine troops during the Balikatan war games in May 2017 (Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty)
US and Philippine troops during the Balikatan war games in May 2017 (Photo: Dondi Tawatao/Getty)

A new normal is evident in the South China Sea disputes.

Last week, Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana revealed that China continues to exchange radio challenges and responses with Philippine aircraft patrols and resupply missions in the West Philippine Sea. With Manila keen to avoid diplomatic tussles over China’s development of artificial islands, this routine “play of words” masks the underlying modus vivendi that accommodates China’s permanent presence and strategic dominance in areas claimed by Manila.

Phillipines President Rodrigo Duterte himself openly described China’s artificial islands as “military bases”, but he insists they are directed only at the US, not the Philippines. In the meantime, the artificial islands provide protective cover to China’s continued exploitation of resources in the Philippine economic exclusion zone. This notwithstanding the Philippines’ spectacular success in delegitimising China’s resource claims through international arbitration.

Going against most previous Philippine administrations, Duterte accepted China’s offer of joint development of South China Sea resources. He recently announced that the two countries will “prudently” and “steadily” advance cooperation on joint exploration of offshore petroleum resources. Since 2016, the Philippines has turned away from publicly asserting its exclusive maritime rights to instead pursue economic cooperation.

Manila hopes that it will be handsomely rewarded by this trade-off. Relations between the two claimants have improved greatly, with the Philippines actively soliciting Chinese financial investments and infrastructure assistance sorely needed to fuel economic growth. Even in the face of external defence and security demands, the Philippines administration does not want risk such rewards.

Duterte’s celebrated “severance” from the US and preference for a security alliance with China and Russia, however, has so far fizzled out. Neither of the two major powers appear to be as interested in actively and directly challenging the existing network of military relationships in the region.

To the security sector, there is much less doubt about Manila’s true security partners. In the conflict in Marawi City last year instigated by the ISIS-inspired Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Clan, the Philippines–US security alliance quietly reactivated at the outbreak of hostilities. The US provided vital battlefield reconnaissance, intelligence, advice, and logistics support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines that helped it improvise and adapt quickly to defeat the terrorist groups. This resulted in relatively few civilian casualties despite the massive collateral damage.

Australia also played a supporting role in the conflict, providing technical assistance and deploying surveillance aircraft. Duterte’s repeated compliments paid to China for providing the sniper rifle that killed the last remaining Maute and Abu Sayyaf leaders seem trivial and apocryphal when compared with the support the Philippines received from long-time treaty allies.       

Two events of the past fortnight exemplify the disjointed nature of Manila’s current policies in the South China Sea.

First, the Armed Forces of the Philippines received six ScanEagle drones from the US, which modestly augment the former’s assets for surveillance, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance/disaster response, and counterterrorism. These capabilities would be especially useful in the West Philippine Sea and Southern Philippine regions. This asset transfer, the latest in a series of unbroken assistance since the previous administration, initially gave the impression that the Philippine–US alliance remains firm.

But then followed a speech by Duterte. He declared the Philippines would never be involved in any US-led wars or “expeditions” unless it is directly threatened, apparently signalling non-involvement in, or no support for, any possible future military actions of any scale between its treaty ally and North Korea. Duterte thus took a very public swipe at the Philippine–US relationship, which obviously weakens it as a tool for or against geopolitical leverage and calls the Philippines’ commitment to the alliance into question.

Considering its timing and geopolitical context, particularly the continuing challenges of China’s maritime dominance in the West Philippine Sea and the slow-burning crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Duterte’s statement seems to run counter to that expected of like-minded, coordinated allies.  

These contrasting events exemplify unresolved fissures in Philippine external security policy – the gap between the Phillipines’ accommodation of China and its alienation of and distancing from the US. Although the stated objective has been to bring the Philippines towards a neutral, independent, non-aligned position (a “friend to all, enemy to none”), the latest actions and statements indicate that there are still problems with coming up with a unified, principled, and consistent approach to achieving that objective.

As a result, standing alliance cooperation activities and projects seem to be more transactional, improvisational, and opportunistic in nature. Official actions at the operational level appear starkly disconnected from official positions and statements at the policy level.

Even if, as demonstrated in Marawi, operationally the partnership remains strong and resilient, actions at the leadership level contribute to continuing uncertainty about future Philippine behaviour and follow-through on security treaty commitments.

Unfortunately, if these disjointed actions continue they may translate into perceptions of the Phillippines as an unreliabile or unworthy alliance partner, and over time give cause to sunder the alliance itself.

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