Will Duterte go soft on China?

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 08 2016 01:58 AM | Updated as of Jun 08 2016 02:24 AM

MANILA – It is still too early to tell whether the incoming administration of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte will take a soft approach on the Philippines' maritime dispute with China, an international policy expert said on Tuesday.

Speaking on ANC's "Beyond Politics" on Tuesday, Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative director Gregory Poling said that outgoing President Benigno Aquino did not assume office with anti-China sentiments, but the Scarborough Shoal incident forced the government to take a more hard-line stance.

"It's way too early, I think, to say whether or not a Duterte presidency is going to differ significantly from the Aquino presidency on policy. Clearly, the rhetoric has softened from President-elect Duterte compared to President Aquino," Poling told ANC's Lynda Jumilla.

"But let's remember: President Aquino did not come into office with an anti-Beijing agenda. In late 2011, he went to Beijing; he met with, at that time President Hu Jintao, (and) came out of that meeting with positive statements about trade deals and investment deals and how great the new era of China-Philippine relations is going to be. And six months later, Beijing seized Scarborough Shoal," he continued.

Poling said Duterte's plan for bilateral talks with China is a welcome change in Philippine-China relations, but the policy expert is skeptical that China will deal with the Philippine government fairly.

"Talking is nice, and the change in rhetoric can be very helpful, but the question is: 'Is Beijing willing to deal with the next Philippine administration in a more fair way than they dealt with the last?' Because if not, it's not going to take long for them to turn President-elect Duterte's rhetoric into a mere image of current President Aquino's rhetoric," Poling said.

He also revealed that China had been ramping up its construction activities in the disputed areas. Poling, who is part of an American think-tank that deals with satellite monitoring of Beijing's activities, said China seems to be building a military base.

"In the Spratlys, it had seven very tiny concrete pillboxes basically the same as everybody else. Now, we have seven fully-functioning, soon-to-be military bases in the South China Sea that are going to allow a huge increase in the number of Chinese ships and planes in the area, especially coast guard, fishing -- these fishermen that also act as maritime militia. It's going to be an enormous problem for regional states," Poling said.

According to Poling, this poses not only a threat to the Philippines, but to other neighboring countries as well, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

"The biggest concern is going to be the enormous fishing fleets, the doubling of military troops and the enormous coast guard that are going to make it. At least, China's goal is to make it impossible for the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia to use these waters and seabed and airspace without China's forbearance," he added.