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Opinion

Duterte's turn against China is tactical ploy, not genuine shift

Filipino leader wants to use South China Sea ruling against Beijing as leverage

Duterte will likely try to use the arbitration award to justify resource-sharing agreements with China.   © Reuters

Ahead of his visit to Beijing in late August, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte suggested a major foreign policy shift. The leader, who has assiduously pursued warmer ties with China, vowed to raise a 2016 U.N. tribunal ruling that rejected China's claims to historic rights in the South China Sea during his high-level meetings.

Interestingly, he made the announcement about the so-called "arbitral ruling" on August 6 before the influential Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, a leading lobby for warmer Philippine-China relations.

"The arbitral ruling, we will talk about [it]," he said. "That's why I'm going to China... Did I not tell you before, that before my term ends, I will be talking about the [South] China Sea?"

Far from marking a policy overhaul, however, this is likely a calculated move to prevent a full-blown backlash at home, especially among his top generals, over his China policy.

Moreover, the Filipino president will likely also leverage the arbitration award, and international law more broadly, to opportunistically argue in favor of controversial resource-sharing agreements with China.

As he enters his twilight years in office, Duterte is bent on cementing a strategic partnership with Beijing, which considers him its "most respected friend."

The announcement caught many by surprise, including his fiercest critics, who have called for a tougher stance against China's creeping intrusion into Philippine waters.

Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who oversaw the Philippines' arbitration case against China during the previous administration, seemed ecstatic at Duterte's announcement. "Let us salute him and assure him of the support of all Filipinos," the former Filipino diplomat said.

Senator Panfilo Lacson, a prominent statesman who has called for stronger ties with Washington against Beijing, commended Duterte's announcement, stating it's "about time" to confront Beijing on the issue.

On the surface, the enthusiastic reactions were understandable. After all, the Filipino president had earlier decided to "set aside" the arbitration award in order to pursue strategic and economic partnership with Beijing.

Throughout his term in office, Duterte maintained that raising the arbitration award was not only an exercise in futility, since China has rejected it and there is no way to enforce it, but also risks a suicidal conflict with China.

Duterte's latest announcement, therefore, is most likely a rhetorical recalibration with the aim of maintaining his current Beijing-leaning policy course. On the one hand, the Filipino president is facing growing domestic pressure, with surveys showing that as many as nine out of 10 Filipinos want the government to raise the arbitration award and wrest back control of Philippine-claimed islands occupied by China.

Surveys show that as many as nine out of 10 Filipinos want the government to wrest back control of Philippine-claimed islands occupied by China.   © Getty Images

Even more crucially, Duterte is taking heat from the powerful defense establishment, which has lashed out at China's maritime expansionism and aggression in Philippine waters.

Recently, no less than Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused China of "bullying" the Philippines. Along with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he has repeatedly criticized China's coercive occupation of Scarborough Shoal, harassment of Filipino fishermen and deployment of militia forces to swarm Philippine-held islands.

The AFP, along with the Filipino defense chief, has also accused China of "deception" and "violation of the rule of law" by deploying warships to Philippine territorial sea without notifying the Philippine authorities.

A Chinese Coast Guard patrol vessel approaches a Filipino fishing boat as they confront each other off Scarborough Shoal.   © AP

The Chinese warships reportedly switched off their Automatic Identification System during their passage through Philippine waters, raising concerns over possible espionage activities against the coastal state.

Duterte's national security adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, went so far as to claim that the influx of Chinese tourists and workers into the Philippines posed a security threat.

His comments came shortly after several Chinese tourists were caught illegally taking photographs inside a strategic naval base in Palawan, which lies close to the contested Spratly Islands. Top Filipino defense officials have implied the potential exists for en masse infiltration of Chinese spies into the country as bilateral ties warm.

By taking a tougher rhetorical stance against China, Duterte likely hopes to keep his critics at bay. Crucially, however, he will likely try to use the arbitration award to justify resource-sharing agreements with China, including fisheries within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone.

After all, the arbitral tribunal affirmed China's "traditional fishing rights" in the waters surround the Scarborough Shoal, which lies within the Philippines' EEZ.

The Filipino president will likely also push for joint energy development schemes in contested waters, specifically in the Reed Bank, which falls within the Philippines' EEZ and China's nine-dash line. This marks its claims in the South China Sea, whose legal basis was nullified by the 2016 U.N. tribunal ruling.

Details about the proposed deal, which may potentially violate the Philippines' own constitution, are yet to be divulged to the public, but Philippine Foreign Secretary Locsin suggested that "everything [is] going well" with the negotiations.

Duterte's latest announcement should be met with cautious optimism, at best, and deep skepticism, at worst. Instead of signaling a recalibration in his China policy, raising the arbitration award is likely a calculated move to reinforce his rapprochement with China and will have major strategic implications for the South China Sea disputes.

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

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