During the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claimed “the Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 Arbitral Award,” and “firmly rejects attempts to undermine it.”
Quite a few US media quickly hyped it up by saying “Duterte gets tough on China, leaning back to old ally America.”
Since assuming office, Duterte has been dealing with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s award in a low-key manner. It is thus a bit surprising to see him raise the issue at the UN General Assembly. Yet it is also a possible scenario.
Despite disputes, as long as the award exists, it could be put forward at any time and on any possible occasion.
On July 13, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that “most” of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea are “unlawful.” Certain US think tanks, politicians and military officers have also voiced a similar stance. Such rhetoric encourages the Philippines to pick up the topic on global occasions. This is the background which cannot be ignored.
In the meantime, however, the Philippines and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are making strides on another path when dealing with disputes with China, the dual-track approach meaning, specific disputes shall be peacefully resolved through consultations by parties directly concerned, and stability in the South China Sea shall be jointly maintained by China and the ASEAN.
Negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct are a crucial part of it. ASEAN members, including the Philippines, generally hold a positive attitude toward the process. The communication channel between China and the Philippines over related issues has been effective.
Although the US’ South China Sea policy is becoming growingly lucid, which seems to be an incitement for the Philippines to become more high-profile over its disputes with China, the US-Philippines alliance is stuck in a predicament without any hope of improving.
Manila has always wanted to revise and promote the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty, believing its vague clauses and content do not constitute a deterrent to possible Philippine opponents.
When a clash breaks out between the Philippines and other countries, the treaty does not guarantee Washington will step in and support Manila. So the Philippines wants an explicit promise from the US.
However, it has not yet received a definite response from the US. Whether to participate in a real conflict between the Philippines and other countries, there are doubts and concerns in the US. After all, Washington has been advocating “America First,” and will make a careful calculation of what it could obtain before providing a security shield to the Philippines.
On the other hand, many Filipinos have been strongly opposing US military presence on their soil. In February, The Philippines officially announced it was scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, a deal that makes it more convenient for the US to send military forces to the Philippines, and authorizes the US military to have freedom of movement within the country.
But in June, Manila reversed the decision. Such a reversal reflects the complicated defense relations between the two countries.
Duterte raised many topics in his UN General Assembly speech, including COVID-19 pandemic, climate crisis and terrorism. Yet US media turned a blind eye to them while only highlighting the part regarding the South China Sea. It is clear this is the only part the US wants to hear, and Duterte was to some extent talking to the US.
As the Philippine general election will take place in 2022, the race among Philippine parties is becoming fiercer. Duterte needs to win more support for his party by showing a tough attitude over territorial disputes.
But would the Philippines really take a side? Highly unlikely. As a matter of fact, like the Philippines, all other ASEAN members also face pressure amid escalating tensions between China and the US.
But they have articulated their wish of not taking sides. They hope to see cooperation between Beijing and Washington, as they are aware that’s how they would benefit. And they understand that Western media tend to drive a wedge in their ties with China.
In the past year, cooperation between China and the Philippines has been unfolding rapidly under the framework of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative, especially the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
China has helped promote infrastructure construction and employment in the Philippines. Chinese President Xi Jinping signed cooperative documents with the country during his visit to the Philippines in 2018, including a deal on joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. Those agreements have been carried out.
During and after the Philippines’ battle against terrorism in Marawi in 2017, China donated a large number of arms and equipment to help fight terrorist groups and rebuild the city. In the fight against the COVID-19, China has sent not only medical supplies, but also a team of experts to the country. The Philippines also expects the China-developed vaccines to be put into use in the Philippines upon availability.
Not to mention a 180-degree turn, a 90-degree turn in the Philippines’ China policy would impact, damage and bring unbearable consequences to the country’s fruitful cooperation with China.
The current Philippine administration is striking a balance between China and the US. Yet, a policy change may likely occur after the election, if another party comes to power.
Nevertheless, no matter which party in the Philippines assumes power, it will see the fundamental part in the China-Philippines ties, the Philippines will always benefit from cooperation with China.