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Opinion

Manila elite split over Duterte's China policy

Defense and security officials resist swing away from the US

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses troops during the 120th anniversary of the Philippine Navy on May 22 in Pasay, the Philippines.   © AP

One of the most puzzling aspects of Rodrigo Duterte's presidency is his foreign policy, particularly toward China. If one were to believe his mind-boggling rhetoric, the Philippines has seemingly transformed from a century-old U.S. ally into China's new best friend.

After all, he has quipped about the Philippines becoming a Chinese "province," advised smaller states to remain "humble" and "meek" in order to receive Beijing's "mercy," and has floated the prospect of "co-ownership" of disputed resources in the South China Sea.

Under his watch, however, the Philippines has also gradually restored its frayed security cooperation with the U.S., issued several "redlines" against Chinese creeping maritime assertiveness, and resumed a long overdue repair of its civilian and military facilities in the Spratly chain of islands, in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

In a dramatic turnabout in the country's conciliatory rhetoric toward China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano last week said, "The president has said that if anyone gets the natural resources in the Western Philippines Sea [the area of the South China Sea claimed by Manila as its economic zone] he will go to war. He said, 'Whatever happens, happens.' He will go to war."

The upshot of these contradictory moves is confusion over the direction of Philippine foreign policy. A closer examination, however, reveals the highly contested nature of the Southeast Asian country's foreign policy decision-making process.

Though popular and increasingly authoritarian, Duterte does not have the unilateral power to dictate policy toward China and the U.S. Instead, the Filipino leader has had to incorporate the views of various veto-holders, particularly the defense establishment, which views Washington as an indispensable strategic partner and remains deeply wary of Chinese intentions in the South China Sea.

This is just as well. The country's interests are not served by exchanging long-held geostrategic interests -- the South China Sea or elsewhere, for the sake of economic gifts from Beijing, especially as China has been slow to deliver on the promised investment.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines have, rightly, maintained robust security cooperation with the U.S. and traditional allies as a latent deterrence, signaling to Beijing that Manila is not going to capitulate in the South China Sea despite Duterte's defeatist rhetoric. It is crucial for Washington and other key regional powers to deepen their cooperation with like-minded elements within the Philippine state and collectively resist China's unilateral challenge to the regional maritime order.

Since his ascent to the presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has introduced two major changes in the Philippines. The first one is a direct assault on the country's fragile democratic institutions through the circumvention of due process, intimidation of media critics, incarceration or ousting of opposition figures, and confrontation with liberal elements in the elite.

The upshot is the emergence of a semi-authoritarian regime, under the control of an imperial presidency. The second major change is a fundamental recasting of the Philippines' traditional alliances. Historically strong relations with America are no longer special, while China is no longer viewed as a pure rival and threat.

In Duterte's view, American primacy in Asia is a geopolitical anomaly that is fast fading from the scene. In contrast, he views China as a millennium-old geographical reality, a nation destined to return to the top of the regional pecking order. The Filipino leader views America, and the West in general, as hostile and overbearing, while China is seen as friendly.

After all, China has not only supported Duterte's controversial war on drugs, whether in diplomatic fora or through actual provision of intelligence and logistical assistance, but has also offered to finance his huge "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure plan.

Duterte has therefore been eager to downplay maritime spats with China in order to lock in the latter's support on policy priorities.

But his increasing dominance of the Philippine political landscape has created the misperception that he can arbitrarily reorient foreign relations.

Despite his tightening grip on the Philippine state, Duterte has struggled to dictate the country's foreign policy. In the country's complex politics, the president, no matter how popular, is just the most important among numerous sources of power. And the U.S. continues to enjoy influence among key sections of society.

The defense establishment as well as the mainstream media do not fully share Duterte's worldview. They see China as a continued source of threat to the Philippines' territorial integrity and maritime interests.

Earlier this year, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, commenting on China's reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea, made it clear that "much still has to be done to boost [Philippine] military capability equipment in order to meet a number of persistent maritime security challenges."

China's broad definition of its maritime claims -- the nine dashed line -- and relentless weaponization of contested land features in area have provoked a domestic backlash against Duterte's China-friendly policy. In recent months, China has deployed H-6K nuclear-capable bombers, surface-to-air-missile and anti-cruise ballistic missile systems, as well as electronic jamming equipment to the Spratly and Paracel islands.

These developments prompted Interim Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio to warn the Filipino president to stand up to China, lest he will be effectively "acquiescing or consenting to the militarization, and worse, to the claim of China that all the islands, waters and resources within the nine-dashed line form part of Chinese territory."

Officials within the military as well as foreign ministry have repeatedly leaked information about the harassment of Philippine forces and fishermen or suspicious movements close to Philippine-occupied land features in the South China Sea -- to the press and opposition members, who, in turn, have eagerly questioned Duterte's China policy.

Crucially, the armed forces recently made clear they "are always aware and will not renege on our beholden constitutional duties to protect our sovereignty and maintain our territorial areas [in South China Sea]." The emphasis on "constitutional duties" signaled their primary loyalty: not to the president, but the national interest.

The military has also gradually restored security cooperation with America, including amphibious joint war games in the South China Sea, which was suspended during Dutetre's first year in office. It has also welcomed expanded military assistance from Japan, India and Australia to augment its maritime security capabilities.

Duterte is concerned about the defense establishment, which has ousted two previous presidents. In early May, he made a high-profile speech before the top brass, where he defended his foreign policy, stating "[i]t's a play of geopolitics."

The Philippine government last month issued, for the first time, several "red lines" for in China in the South China Sea: non-reclamation of Scarborough Shoal, non-harassment of Philippine marine detachment in the Second Thomas Shoal, and no unilateral drilling for oil and gas resources within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The Duterte administration has also resumed long-delayed repair of facilities in the Thitu-island in the Spratlys. Under heavy criticism, Cayetano offered to resign from office if "a single island during Duterte's time" is lost to China.

It is far from clear whether Duterte has genuinely reconsidered his conciliatory policy toward China. What's clear is that he cannot ignore the sentiments of other stakeholders. If China continues its aggressive push across the disputed waters, it could eventually torpedo its rapprochement with the Philippines. The U.S and other traditional major allies must therefore continue engaging with the Philippines not least over maritime security.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author; his latest book is "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" (Palgrave Macmillan).

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