October 17, 2016 1:43 pm JST
Bill Hayton

Duterte's China visit could move regional goalposts

When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Oct. 19, the two men will have the chance to reshape the future politics of Southeast Asia. If China plays its cards right it could disable the US-Philippines alliance, fracture what is left of unity among the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and knock down another domino in its quest for regional hegemony. But it may prefer to hang on to a wave-swept coral reef instead.

Duterte's spokespeople are already describing his China visit from Oct.19 to 21 as a "reboot" in bilateral relations. In the weeks leading up to the visit, "DU30" - as he has been nicknamed -- has ticked every box in the test that Beijing has set for him. He has ended military exercises and joint naval patrols with the United States, insisted he is not bothered about protecting the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone from Chinese poachers, sidelined discussion of the Philippines' July victory against China at an international Arbitral Tribunal in the Hague and verbally attacked President Barack Obama. It is hard to know what more he could do to persuade the Chinese side that the reboot is real.

Some benefits have already begun to flow. Earlier in October, China lifted its "ban" on imports of bananas and pineapples from the Philippines. In truth there was never a total ban. The Philippines still managed to export 388,000 tons of bananas to China in the first eight months of this year (and 488,000 tons last year) despite the measure. The Philippine banana industry has major problems with both pests and the overuse of pesticide. However, if the Chinese government chooses to overlook such health risks in the interests of better relations we can assume that Philippine exporters, based almost entirely in Duterte's home province of Mindanao, will be suitably grateful.

The president is actively seeking other benefits for Mindanao too. During his election campaign he suggested China could help to build a railway network for the island and he assured the audience for his state of the nation address in August that a railway-building program for the entire country is "going to materialize" during his six-year term of office. China has surplus industrial capacity, the Philippines needs investment: it could be a great match. Duterte will have some concrete rewards to show for his "pivot" to China.

It is easy to forget now, but six years ago President Benigno Aquino entered office with equally high hopes of a good relationship to China. At Beijing's request, the Philippines boycotted the 2010 ceremony for Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize and, a few months later, extradited 14 Taiwanese fraud suspects to mainland China -- to Taipei's fury. The Philippine military's chief of staff visited Beijing with suggestions that he was there to negotiate a major arms deal. But Aquino's goodwill to China disappeared in April 2012 when Chinese ships blockaded the Scarborough Shoal. The question now for Duterte and Xi is whether that rocky outcrop, tiny but strategically vital for control of the South China Sea, will get in the way this time as well.

It could be that Duterte thinks losing the Shoal is a small price to pay for the great benefits that would flow to his province, and the wider country, from Chinese aid, trade and investment. However, he has also spoken with bravado of being prepared to jet ski to the Shoal in order to defend it and on Oct. 7 he declared, "We will have the Filipinos returning to the traditional fishing grounds." The sovereignty issue seems to be important to him and his supporters, even to die-hard leftists such as Renato Reyes, secretary-general of Bayan, a coalition of radical grassroots organizations that campaigns against the presence of American forces in the Philippines. "At the minimum," Reyes said, Duterte, "shouldn't be seen as giving up our claims to Scarborough, or seen as backtracking given the favorable ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal."

Noises from the Chinese side suggest he will be offered a deal - to recognize Chinese control of Scarborough Shoal in exchange for permission to fish there. Zou Keyuan of the University of Central Lancashire in northern England, who has advised the Chinese government on its South China Sea policy, suggests that when the two sides discuss the South China Sea issues, "it is most likely that they will base it on the previous agreements reached between the two sides before Aquino. There would be a possibility that China would allow the Philippine fishermen to fish around the Scarborough, but this would be part of a package deal for joint development and management in the South China Sea between the two sides."

A deal such as this would see the Philippines' ASEAN neighbors' rolling their eyes once again. Under President Fidel Ramos, ASEAN members were urged to stand united when China occupied Mischief Reef. Under his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, ASEAN was spurned when Manila cut a bilateral oil survey deal (the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking) with Beijing. It was urged to stand united again under Benigno Aquino in the face of China's island-building. Now, under Duterte, the Philippines seems to be in spurning mode once again.

A deal allowing Philippine fishing to resume at Scarborough Shoal could actually be a diplomatic masterstroke by China. It would have the outward effect of splitting the Philippines away from its alliance with the U.S. while simultaneously bringing it into compliance with the Arbitral Tribunal ruling. According to Zheng Zhihua, director of the Joint Institute for Maritime Law and History at the East China University of Political Science and Law, "The fishing issue in Scarborough Shoal itself is not a big deal, especially for China. It's maybe a test, which could tell whether the island building in Scarborough Shoal will be put in action in the near future. If China is willing to compromise on the fishing issue, it may indicate that the land reclamation in Scarborough Shoal has not been put on the agenda. If it is not the case, China may wait a suitable opportunity to realize it."

Most analysts of the South China Sea dispute assume that China's grand plan is ultimately to fully occupy the feature and build a massive base on it. Such a base would form the third point of a triangle (with the Paracels and Spratlys) to give China the ability to control navigation through the sea and perhaps construct what naval strategists call a "bastion" - a protected area of deep water in which to hide its ballistic nuclear missile submarines.

One close observer in Manila of developments in the South China Sea, Jay Batongbacal, an ocean lawyer at the University of the Philippines, fears that Duterte "breaking away from the Philippines' allies and pandering to China's requirements to negotiate on the South China Sea could give them [Beijing] enough time to carry out island-building on Scarborough." If Duterte's opening to China did lead to this outcome, his political future would be in serious doubt. He would almost certainly join the list of presidents who have faced impeachment proceedings. It would also be proof to other ASEAN members that China cannot be trusted to respect the interests of Southeast Asian states.

According to Batongbacal, Duterte is now between a rock and a hard place, "If he returns without any concession, it would be a humiliating blow since he's already gone out of his way to distance himself from the Philippines' allies. If he returns with a concession, he will be seen as having succumbed to China and to have abandoned long-standing good relations for a pittance."

China has choices to make too. Earlier in October, at the Xiangshan Forum, China's regional security summit, Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin called for the "building of an Asia-Pacific security architecture". But most Southeast Asian governments will be reluctant to join such China-led arrangements so long as Beijing appears intent on domination. The best way to assuage Southeast Asian fears would be to sail its ships away from Scarborough Shoal and return it to the fishermen. Duterte would have proof that his independent foreign policy works better than the alliance with the U.S., and Washington-Manila ties would be permanently damaged. China would have demonstrated the benefits that flow from cozy bilateral deals rather than insisting on regional, multilateral discussions, fracturing ASEAN in the process.

But China will not do that. Its obsession with its territorial claim in the South China Sea is too strong. In July, following the decision by the international tribunal to reject China's claims to the resources of most of the disputed waters, it published a "white paper" in support of its position. Notably it did not contain a single piece of evidence that China has ever occupied or administered the Scarborough Shoal. Yet, the government clings to the assertion that it has been part of Chinese territory "since ancient times." The choice for China is whether it clings to that evidence-free myth and continues to stir up regional strife, or quietly puts it to rest to build a bright new future for the region.

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow with the Asia program at Chatham House and author of "The South China Sea: The struggle for power in Asia."

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