August 1, 2017 1:50 pm JST
Richard Heydarian

Duterte's moves could hasten regional 'Pax Sinica'

Beijing benefits amid deepening security crises in Philippines

In his second State of the Nation Address on July 24, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte zeroed in on domestic security challenges, although in his role as current chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, regional issues loom large on the agenda. He also warned Western countries, including the U.S. and the European Union, against criticizing his war on drugs, which has led to the deaths of thousands of mostly poor Filipinos since he took office in July 2016. In contrast, there were plenty of warm words for China.

While clearly aiming at both domestic and international audiences, Duterte devoted much of his two-hour speech to the crisis in Mindanao, where the military is battling multiple insurgencies, both Islamist as well as communist.

After two months of intensive operations, security forces have yet to wrest control of Marawi, the country's largest Muslim-majority city, from Islamic State-affiliated groups. The crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of the security establishment, which is scrambling against myriad national security threats.

Vowing to crush the Muslim extremists, Duterte on May 23 declared martial law throughout much of the country's south. Recognizing the gravity of the Mindanao crisis, the Philippine Congress on July 22 overwhelmingly voted in favor of extending Duterte's emergency powers until the end of the year.

But fearing that Duterte will use martial law powers as a pretext to crush all opponents of the state, communist rebels have declared all-out war against the government. The upshot is a virtual breakdown in months-long peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front -- the civilian wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines -- and the government.

More than a year into office, the tough-talking president faces a festering domestic security landscape. To Beijing's delight, this has forced him to take an increasingly passive position against external threats, particularly in the South China Sea.

As president of a key claimant state and as rotational leader of ASEAN, Duterte's prioritization of warmer ties with China will weaken efforts to tame Beijing's territorial appetite in adjacent waters.

Security architecture

Reflecting both domestic and international priorities, Duterte is expected to zero in on transnational terrorism and promoting his campaign against illegal drugs. Fellow ASEAN leaders can expect to hear about these and other issues in coming days, when Manila hosts major regional gatherings, particularly the ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting-Plus, which are key multilateral platforms for negotiating regional security architecture and managing intra-regional disputes.

What is at stake is no less than ASEAN centrality as it concerns the South China Sea disputes, which have pitted several Southeast Asian claimant states against China. Moving forward the question is whether the regional body can muster enough internal unity to be able to freeze the conflict, prevent military escalation, and pave the way for a mutually acceptable dispute-settlement arrangement among claimant states.

But China wants to ensure that Manila will exercise its prerogative as ASEAN chairman to block any attempts by member states, particularly Vietnam, as well as by external powers, particularly the U.S., Australia and Japan, to place the South China Sea disputes front and center.

Shortly after Duterte's address, Beijing dispatched Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was warmly received in the presidential palace. The chief Chinese diplomat hailed the "strong momentum" in Philippine-China relations. Crucially, he called upon the Philippines and ASEAN to reject supposed interference by "non-regional forces" in the South China Sea disputes.

In his press conference Wang underscored the "full capabilities and wisdom [of ASEAN countries] to handle differences between us and maintain stability in the South China Sea." This was a thinly veiled instruction to the Philippines to keep the disputes among claimant states alone.

Amid much fanfare, China and ASEAN countries recently celebrated their agreement on an outline framework for a Code of Conduct covering the South China Sea. On closer inspection, the document looks more like a purely symbolic and inconsequential deal, since it makes clear that a final code will not serve as a dispute-settlement mechanism on "territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues," and that norms, rather than binding laws, will underlie its day-to-day operation. The current code represents the lowest common denominator, which only reinforces lingering doubts over ASEAN's mettle as the driver of regional integration and conflict-management role.

It is increasingly clear that China's decision to accelerate negotiations over a Code of Conduct was a calculated attempt to push other major actors out of the South China Sea discussion. Beijing is intent on soliciting Manila's support in its drive.

The Chinese foreign minister also underscored deepening bilateral economic relations and China's willingness to help Duterte with his development agenda at home. If the Philippine president continues to toe China's line, this will likely rile other claimant states such as Vietnam, which are deeply worried about Beijing's zealous reclamation activities in -- and gradual militarization of -- disputed land features across the area. More broadly, this will undercut ASEAN centrality and the grouping's ability to act as an effective and consequential mediator when it comes to ongoing spats in one of the world's most important waterways.

Perturbed by the scale and speed of China's growing military footprint in the area, the Trump administration is considering more active measures, including regular and expansive Freedom of Navigation operations, across the South China Sea.

During his national address, Duterte perfunctorily discussed the maritime disputes, while presenting China as a generous and helpful international partner. During his post-address press conference, he reiterated his preference for joint-development agreements with China within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

Undaunted by criticism

Duterte seemed undaunted by criticisms that this could violate the constitution, which prohibits state-to-state ventures within Philippine waters, and undermine the landmark 2016 arbitration award at The Hague, which made it clear that China has no overlapping sovereign rights within the Philippines' EEZ. "If we can get something there with no hassle at all, why not?" Duterte told reporters when asked about the rationale for sharing fisheries and hydrocarbon resources with China.

Meanwhile, relations with the West continue to be hampered by disagreements over human rights -- in particular Duterte's heavily criticized war on illegal drugs. Underlining his commitment to continuing the crackdown on suspected drug users and traffickers, the president said in his recent address that the campaign will be as "unremitting as it will be unrelenting."

Duterte seemed particularly aghast at the recent U.S. congressional hearing into his war on drugs, during which several American lawmakers lashed out at the Philippine leader and urged the White House to rescind its invitation to him to visit the U.S.

He criticized Western nations for supposedly interfering in domestic affairs and went so far as to recite century-old American atrocities against Filipinos. Clearly, Duterte was eager to prove that despite his government's growing reliance on U.S. counter-terrorism assistance, he would continue to move away from traditional allies in favor of alternative poles of power.

For him, this is the essence of an "independent" foreign policy. Beijing seems to be the greatest beneficiary of Duterte's increased focus on domestic security challenges and lingering tensions with the West over human rights issues. Duterte's soft-pedaling on the South China Sea issue, coupled with ASEAN's inability to effectively address the disputes, provide Beijing a virtual carte blanche to dominate adjacent waters and shape the region in its own image.

Far from a driver of regional integration, ASEAN, under Manila's current chairmanship, is inadvertently facilitating the emergence of a Pax Sinica in East Asia.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and the forthcoming book "Rise of Duterte."

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