Courting China again: What’s on the line for Duterte in Beijing return

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 24 2019 12:42 PM

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shake hands after the Chinese leader signed the guest book at Malacañang Palace, November 20, 2018. Mark Cristino, Pool via Reuters/File

MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte is set to return to China for the fourth time in his nearly 3-year presidency with the backdrop of rising tensions between Manila and Beijing over disputed areas in the South China Sea.

Duterte, who veered away from the Philippines’ oldest ally the United States at the start of his term, is expected to woo China when he visits there again from April 25 to 27. 

On the agenda is his bid for Manila's interests in Beijing’s global infrastructure plan that could set the stage for the world economic landscape in the years to come.

This, amid the threat of the rising number of Chinese vessels near islands in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the disputed waters, and the continued harassment reported by Filipino fishermen.

In his fourth visit to the Chinese capital, Duterte faces pressure to show Manila’s pivot to Beijing was an effective foreign policy in terms of improving the situation in the South China Sea, analysts said.

“This is his opportunity to demonstrate that he really has a word on the issue,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told ABS-CBN News.

“The fundamental message that he has to deliver is that China is not acting only in contravention to international law but basically is being completely unfair and unilateral and making any negotiations, talks with the Philippines at present is pointless,” he added.

In the weeks leading up to Duterte’s Beijing return for the second Belt and Road Forum Initiative, reports of Chinese activity in the disputed waters have notably increased.

Government has raised concerns over reports of mass harvesting of clams near the Scarborough Shoal and the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island, Kota Island, and Panata Island.

"While we remain friendly with respect to trade relations, we will always assert sovereignty when it is being impaired or assaulted. If they (Chinese) continue to be present in our territory then it is an assault to our sovereignty," Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo earlier said.

WHAT’S ON THE LINE

Duterte has to get China to remove its fishing vessels in Philippine waters at the “barest minimum” to save face over his foreign policy shift, which has drawn much criticism.

“The minimum the President should demand is for China to withdraw its destructive fishing fleet from these areas. That is the barest minimum. It doesn’t affect in any manner the claims of other sides,” Batongbacal said.

“If we can’t get even that, a small concession, a small but very vital concession then, he will come out as not being able to leverage anything from China,” he added.

Instead of improving Manila’s position in the maritime dispute, Duterte’s pivot to China has resulted in more “brazen actions” from Beijing, said University of Santo Tomas political analyst Dennis Coronacion.

“He was wrong in thinking that by avoiding confrontation with China it would take a less aggressive stance in the disputed islands. In fact, his appeasement of China resulted in the latter's more brazen actions,” Coronacion told ABS-CBN News.

Coronacion added that the Philippines could follow suit the “hostile stance” being taken by Vietnam and other countries against China with claims in the vital seaway.

“The ‘pivot to China’ policy should be abandoned and it's time to play the arbitral ruling card and gain the support of the international community,” he said.

RAISE THE ARBITRAL RULING?

In his first visit to China in 2016, Duterte went home with $24 billion in Chinese loans and investment pledges for his ambitious ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure program. This was followed by his attendance to the first Belt and Road Forum in May 2017 and the Boao Forum in April 2018.

But the Philippines is still waiting for China to deliver on its promises.

Duterte had set aside Manila’s victory in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal which invalidated China's sweeping 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

This as Beijing has refused to recognize the ruling and has instead ramped up its militarization efforts in the disputed waters, a move it also denies.

“In a way, it has worsened the situation for the Philippines because in those 3 years without getting anything and in exchange for the Philippines keeping quiet, China has been able to progress even further in the West Philippine Sea,” Batongbacal said.

Analysts believe that it’s now high-time for President Duterte to raise Manila’s July 2016 arbitral victory against China even as he pursues friendly ties with the powerful Asian neighbor.

“Given the latest Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea, if the President will not raise the arbitral ruling in his visit, it will create the impression that the President prefers China over Philippine sovereignty,” Coronacion said.

“He should have always invoked it… His idea is supposedly to talk to China later but at the rate that China is destroying the marine environment, any later talks will eventually be fruitless because there will be nothing to protect,” Batongbacal said.

Malacañang has insisted that the Philippines’ sovereignty is "non-negotiable" even as the country sought closer ties with China.

Panelo earlier said the President had already “effectively" invoked the arbitral ruling when he told Beijing to "lay off" Philippine-occupied Pag-asa Island, claiming that the Duterte administration never shelved the landmark victory.

"Effectively, his (Duterte) previous statement earlier when he said 'do not touch our property, if you do any harm to our soldiers we will respond in kind.' That effectively has already made a strong assertion of sovereignty and statement relatively to the arbitral ruling," Panelo said.

Aside from joining the Belt and Road Forum, Duterte is scheduled to hold bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and is expected to sign 5 agreements that cover the areas of education, anti-corruption, official development assistance, and drug rehabilitation.

Duterte is also one of the lead speakers at the Leaders’ Roundtable during the forum which will be joined by 39 other heads of state, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Duterte had just hosted Xi in the Chinese president's historic state visit to the Philippines in November, where they reaffirmed friendship between the two countries and signed several agreements covering a range of areas. 

“They (Duterte and Xi) are expected of course to chart the course of further development of bilateral relations in various areas like defense, security, economics, and development as well as regional and international issues of mutual importance,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre said.

Panelo earlier said Duterte might raise the presence of Chinese vessels near Philippine islands in his meeting with Xi following a “salvo” of diplomatic notes filed by Manila against Beijing.

“Baka lumabas 'yun sa usapan. Baka naman sila na mismo sumagot dun kasi ni-raise na nga natin,” Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo told reporters during a Palace press briefing.

(It may be discussed. Maybe China would even respond since we have already raised the issue.)

“My educated guess is since we have already raised that, they (China) may respond to that during the bilateral talks,” he added.

Amid the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippines remains “diplomatically kind” to China and is making a “studied response” with regards to its actions in the waterway given Beijing’s assistance to Manila, Malacañang said.

Batongbacal said if the President returns to Manila without concessions, "he’s going to look completely ineffectual in dealing with China.” 

“He will only come out as a weak leader that China is able to very easily deceive or dare I say buy out with promises of infrastructure and financial aid,” he added.