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Duterte reaches moment of truth over China

Time to rethink pro-Beijing policy and boost diplomatic pressure, deterrence and US ties

| Philippines

Half way into his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte is confronting a rude awakening in the South China Sea. Over the past three months, an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels has swarmed around the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island, marking a dramatic escalation in the two countries' maritime disputes.

In response, the Filipino president instructed his soldiers to "prepare for suicide missions," while his equally feisty foreign secretary Teddy Locsin declared he has "no fear of war" and warned of a Third World War if China annexed Philippine-claimed islands.

The Philippine government's unusually tough language came amid a public outcry, with growing numbers of people questioning Duterte's Beijing-friendly foreign policy.

If left unresolved, the crisis could torpedo Duterte's years-long effort to develop strategic partnership with China. And with midterms elections just weeks away, the Filipino president has other good reasons to avoid diplomatic embarrassment and keep his critics at bay.

The continuing siege of Thitu could serve as an opportunity for Duterte to finally reset a misguidedly quiescent China policy. He should make clear to Beijing that further encroachments will have repercussions, including the reinforcement of Philippine-U. S. defense relations. Manila could also go back on its decision not to press a landmark 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling at The Hague which rejected much of China's South China Sea claim.

Otherwise, the Philippine president risks rewarding bad behavior, and encouraging China to extend its claims in the disputed waters at the expense of smaller states such as the Philippines.

Duterte has long pursued friendly ties with China, portraying the Asian powerhouse as a "friend" and partner, particularly in infrastructure development and trade.

He cold-shouldered the U.S., expressing his "love" for the Chinese leadership and his "need" for their protection. To Beijing's delight, he repeatedly refused to pursue the 2016 arbitration ruling in international forums.

Meanwhile, he blocked America's efforts to preposition weapons in Philippine bases in accordance with the bilateral 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed by his predecessor. This has hampered Washington's preparations for contingencies in the South China Sea.

Instead of taming China's territorial appetite, however, Duterte's strategic acquiescence seems to have reinforced Beijing's maritime domination drive.

China has accelerated its reclamation projects, further militarized the area with deployment of surface-to-air-missiles and electronic jamming equipment; and, most recently, swarmed Philippine-held islands with a militia armada.

Since January, there have been sightings of 657 Chinese vessels suspected of belonging to the People's Liberation Army Maritime Militia Forces, according to the Philippine military. As many as 275 vessels, equipped with state-of-the-art electronic communication and likely with armed personnel, have been involved in a months-long siege of Thitu Island.

The Philippine has occupied the disputed land feature, the second largest natural formation in the area, since the mid-1970s, when it began to build one of the first modern airstrips in the area.

Thitu is considered by the Philippine constitution as national territory.   © Reuters

Along with seven other land features in the Spratlys, Thitu is considered by the Philippine constitution as national territory. Over the past five years, China has transformed nearby Subi Reef, which is also claimed by the Philippines, into a full-fledged island with modern military facilities.

There are fears in the Philippines that China is now consolidating its grip over all the area's disputed land features.

The Chinese armada around Thitu is likely engaged in monitoring and restricting the Philippines' efforts to improve its facilities on the island, and access to nearby Sandy Cay, a sandbar that has served as a shelter for Filipino fishermen.

To Manila's further chagrin, Chinese militia forces were also spotted around nearby Kota Island, under Philippine jurisdiction for decades. After initially denying their presence, Chinese officials have since insisted that the paramilitary vessels are rightfully present because the Spratlys belong to China. Beijing also seems to justify the siege with the argument that it must prevent the U.S. from using Philippine facilities in the area.

In response, thousands of Filipinos from across the political spectrum have joined protests anti-China protests, decrying the incidents as "an almost invasion." Anti-China sentiments are running high, with a recent survey showing that only two out of ten Filipinos had favorable views of China's intentions. This has provided a crucial opening for opposition and government critics to rally public opinion against Duterte's policies.

Last month, two prominent critics, former Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales, filed an International Criminal Court (ICC) communication case against Chinese officials. They accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of committing crimes against humanity by preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing the country's exclusive economic zone.

Government officials are toughening their language, with Duterte's spokesman Salvador Penelo lashing out at the "assault" on Philippine sovereignty and complaining: "We're supposed to be friends. As the President says, friends don't do that."

The Thitu Island crisis should encourage Duterte to reconsider his policy of strategic acquiescence in favor of greater diplomatic assertiveness as well as boosting military deterrence against China.

As the Philippine government has already warned, he has the option of taking the issue to the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council, and reminding the world of the 2016 tribunal ruling. Without global pressure, China will likely continue its current course.

Duterte can also reverse his previous approach and allow the U.S. to position weapons at key Philippine bases, particularly the Bautista and Basa air bases near the South China Sea. The Trump administration has stepped up efforts to check China's maritime ambitions through increasingly robust Freedom of Navigation Operations, expanded military assistance to key allies, and the deployment of sophisticated military equipment.

The Philippine-U.S. alliance is also recovering strength. During his February visit to Manila, American Secretary of State Pompeo made it clear, for the first time ever, that the U.S. would come to the Philippines' assistance if its vessels and personnel came under attack in the South China Sea. In early April, the U.S. deployed the advanced amphibious assault ship USS Wasp, carrying at least 10 F-35B stealth jets, to join the annual Philippine-U.S Balikatan exercises in the South China Sea.

As Duterte prepares to visit China for the fourth time in three years later in April, it's crucial for him to clarify Manila's red lines. Otherwise, he risks not only undermining the Philippines' national interest, but also his political capital amid crucial midterm elections, that could shape the remaining half of his six-year residency. It's time he based his China policy on facts, not wishful thinking.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and forthcoming "The Indo-Paciifc: Trump, China and the New Global Struggle for Mastery."

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