MANILA -- After a heated verbal tussle between Philippine and Chinese officials over dozens of Chinese ships moored in the disputed South China Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte dialed down the rhetoric on Tuesday.
"Whatever differences we have with China ... it will not be an obstacle to the overall positive trajectory of our bilateral friendly relations and our deepening cooperation [in the] pandemic response, including vaccine cooperation, and in [the] post pandemic economic recovery," Duterte said in a statement read by his spokesperson.
The presence of what the Philippine military calls Chinese "maritime militia" in Manila's maritime zone is the latest dilemma for Duterte's China policy. Blasting Beijing would be popular in the Philippines, where many people see the issue as one of China intruding on the country's territory. But doing so risks the Chinese largesse Duterte needs to deal with one Asia's worst COVID outbreaks and pandemic-induced recessions.
"Duterte feels there's a need to respond in a manner as tough as possible ... without unnecessarily shaking the foundations of ties between Manila and Beijing," said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore.
The tough-talking president has yet to comment directly on the recent feud, which was triggered by a government task-force report last month that over 200 Chinese vessels were spotted around Whitsun Reef. Duterte canceled his weekly televised address on Wednesday, after members of his security detail tested positive for COVID-19.
Nevertheless, Duterte's dovishness on the issue is "not unexpected" given his "accommodating" policy toward China, said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines.
"He has always emphasized his need for China. Before it was for infrastructure assistance, and now for vaccinations," Batongbacal said. "He has basically defined his relationship with China with that kind of dependence."
Since his election in 2016, Duterte has nurtured closer ties with China by putting the sensitive territorial dispute on the back burner. Duterte's gesture yielded billions of dollars worth of investment pledges, a flood of Chinese tourists and market access for Philippine exports, including bananas, a top agricultural product in Duterte's home region of Davao.
During the pandemic, China sent ventilators, personal protective equipment and recently, vaccines to the Philippines. Manila launched its COVID inoculation program last month with Sinovac Biotech jabs donated by Beijing, and Duterte is now counting on doses purchased from the Chinese company as delivery of vaccines from other sources face delays.
"If President Xi Jinping is listening, from the bottom of my heart, and with immense gratitude, I thank you ... for being so generous," Duterte said after the first batch of donations arrived.
For Duterte, ensuring China's support will be crucial, especially as the Philippines wrestles with a resurgence of coronavirus infections that has prompted a two-week lockdown of a quarter of the population, including the capital. That threatens his government's effort to reverse a record 9.6% economic contraction last year, which sent hunger and unemployment spiraling higher.
The country's pandemic woes could undermine Duterte's party in next year's national elections, Koh said. Duterte is limited to one six-year term as president, but prospective candidates to succeed him include his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, and former top aide, Sen. Bong Go.
On the other hand, bringing the infections under control and reviving the economy could boost his chosen successor's chances. "To do that, certainly, the Duterte administration still needs Beijing's assistance," Koh said.
That partly explains why Duterte has departed from the hawkish statements of his defense and foreign ministers, who have slammed Beijing, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea.
Beijing says the ships are fishing vessels operating in traditional fishing grounds and Whitsun Reef, which is located 175 nautical miles (324 km) from Philippines' Palawan Province and 638 nautical miles off China's southern Hainan Island. China says the reef is part of its territory. It also says vessels were sheltering from rough seas, something that the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs has called "a blatant falsehood."
As vessels sailed in other disputed areas, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused China of planning to occupy more "features" in disputed waters. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., meanwhile, said he would file diplomatic protests every day until the vessels leave the area.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Tuesday urged the Philippines to look at the issue "objectively" and "immediately stop wanton hype-up, and avoid casting negative influences on bilateral relations."
The spat has drawn the attention of foreign policy watchers over whether the Duterte administration is adjusting its China policy.
"If this is the start of a policy of letting [the defense and foreign affairs departments] do what they'd like to ... that would represent a significant shift, and could fundamentally change the discussion around the South China Sea for the remainder of Duterte's presidency and beyond," said Gregory Poling, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Batongbacal, for his part, said Manila's moves only show a sense of alarm within the military, which sees the Whitsun Reef incident as reminiscent of Beijing's takeover of Mischief Reef in 1995 -- which was later transformed into a military outpost -- and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 after a monthslong standoff. Fishing vessels were involved in both instances, he said.
"From [the military's] point of view, they have reasons to believe that this is Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal all over again," Batongbacal said.
CSIS's Poling said Duterte's South China Sea policy has not produced the benefits the president had hoped for, with billions of dollars in pledged investments yet to be delivered.
"He has kept quiet on the West Philippine Sea for nearly five years, but Beijing has not responded by de-escalating the maritime tensions or by delivering the investment and aid promised," Poling said. "At this point, he has little to gain politically by continuing to deflect attention from what is happening at sea, since it is obvious that Beijing will not reciprocate."