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Philippine President Duterte’s China pivot hasn’t decreased South China Sea tensions

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Kyodo News | Getty Images

More than 5 years on, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Beijing-friendly postures haven’t tamed China’s assertiveness within the disputed South China Sea — and the subsequent Philippine chief must be bolder in difficult Beijing, mentioned a political and threat analyst.

The Philippines will maintain normal elections to vote for a brand new president in May as Duterte’s six-year time period involves an finish. Duterte has sought nearer ties with Beijing and declared that he was prepared to put aside his nation’s territorial contest with China within the South China Sea.  

China and its Southeast Asian neighbors together with the Philippines have been embroiled in territorial disputes within the South China Sea for many years.

China claims nearly the whole waterway. In the previous few years, China constructed synthetic islands within the sea, whereas Chinese fishing fleets and maritime militia vessels swarmed areas internationally acknowledged as belonging to different international locations.    

“The most favorable scenario for the Philippines would be a change in the mindset of the elected leader in May 2022,” mentioned Peaches Lauren Vergara, head of the strategic intelligence apply at Amador Research Services, a analysis and advisory agency.

The subsequent Philippine president ought to steer away from “the defeatist attitude displayed by the current leadership,” and extra firmly problem China’s claims, Vergara wrote in a December report revealed by the Asia Society Policy Institute.

CNBC has reached out to the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs, in addition to the Chinese embassies in Singapore and the Philippines, for touch upon the report. None have replied on the time of publication.

Tensions with China

With simply months left in Duterte’s presidential time period, China’s promised infrastructure investments to the Philippines have fallen wanting expectations, whereas tensions between Manila and Beijing are rising once more within the South China Sea, in accordance with a December report by suppose tank International Crisis Group.

“Many in the Philippines are increasingly sceptical of rapprochement with China if it entails giving up claims to various disputed maritime features,” learn the report.

The South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway, contributes round 27% of the Philippines’ complete fisheries manufacturing, mentioned Vergara within the Asia Society Policy Institute report. A bunch of scientists have reportedly warned that Chinese actions within the disputed waters threaten the fishing trade.

Meanwhile, tensions with China have hindered Philippine oil exploration efforts within the sea.

“This has serious repercussions for the country’s ability to achieve energy security as its main source of natural gas for electricity supply — Malampaya — nears depletion,” Vergara mentioned.

Some within the Duterte authorities have extra vocally protested the presence of Chinese vessels in components of the South China Sea that have been internationally acknowledged as belonging to the Philippines.

In May, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. directed an unusually aggressive tweet at Beijing as the 2 international locations clashed over the South China Sea. Locsin Jr. accused China of straining its “friendship” with the Philippines.   

Philippine presidential race

China’s rising assertiveness and Duterte’s “subservience” to Beijing have propelled points surrounding the South China Sea into the general public limelight within the Philippines, mentioned Vergara.

Some analysts mentioned Philippine presidential candidates that seem pro-China may face opposition from the general public.  

Former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, speaks to the media after submitting his candidacy to hitch the 2022 presidential race, at Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent on October 06, 2021 in Pasay, Metro Manila, Philippines.

Rouelle Umali | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. — son and namesake of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos — led the newest opinion ballot on the presidential race. In a December survey by impartial pollster Pulse Asia, 53% of respondents picked Marcos Jr. as their favored presidential candidate.

Compared with Duterte, Marcos Jr. would search “more balanced ties” with the U.S. and China if he is elected, mentioned Peter Mumford, apply head for South and Southeast Asia in danger consultancy Eurasia Group, in a report final month.

Navigating U.S.-China competitors

The South China Sea is likely one of the contentious points within the geopolitical competitors between the U.S. and China. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has referred to as out China’s “unlawful” claims and “bullying” within the sea.

The Philippines is in a difficult place in that contest. The Southeast Asian nation has a protection treaty with the U.S., whereas China is its largest neighbor and prime financial companion.

“A crucial question remains whether the Philippines can navigate between China and the U.S. without an armed confrontation compelling it to choose sides,” mentioned the International Crisis Group.

“For now, Manila is hedging well. But its balancing act may soon become untenable as Beijing seeks to assert its regional ambitions and Washington pushes back,” it added.

The suppose tank mentioned the Philippines can not resolve the South China Sea dispute by itself. The nation ought to work with its neighbors on problems with widespread concern, reminiscent of fisheries administration and regulation enforcement, to handle their territorial disputes.  

The Philippines must also push to finalize a “code of conduct” between Southeast Asian international locations and China to handle maritime tensions, whereas preserving a diplomatic channel with Beijing open to scale back misunderstandings, mentioned the International Crisis Group.

“None of these steps will resolve the increasingly entrenched maritime dispute, but they could help keep the risk low that incidents at sea will escalate toward conflict.”

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