“Duterte’s China Problems” by Malcolm Cook

2018/71, 12 June 2018

President Duterte’s accommodationist approach to China and Chinese aggressive actions in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea is starting to run into domestic political problems.

Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea appear to contradict agreements President Duterte claims he has reached with Beijing. The Duterte administration’s rationalizations for these breaches are becoming less credible and coherent.

Last week, the Philippine media released video footage of members of the Chinese Coast Guard boarding Filipino fishing boasts off Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal and taking away some of their catch. One of the harassed fishermen emotively asked “are we slaves to China?”

Representative Gary Alejano, an opposition member of the House of Representatives and a former member of the Philippine Marine Corps, reported that on 11 May a People’s Liberation Army Navy helicopter harassed the Philippine Navy operation to resupply a Philippine navy vessel beached on Second Thomas (Ayugin) Shoal.

The seizure by the Chinese coast guard of Filipino fishers’ Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal catch, particularly as the affected fishermen claim that this was not an isolated incident, appears to contradict the president. President Duterte had triumphantly claimed that in his first meeting with President Xi Jinping during his state visit to China in October 2016 that the Chinese leader had agreed to let Filipino fishermen fish again around the shoal.

The harassment of the Philippine resupply mission appears to cross one of the Philippine “red lines” Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano listed during tense House of Representatives’ hearings questioning this accommodationist policy towards China. Cayetano said that he had briefed President Duterte about the 11 May incident that has been labelled as ‘a very isolated incident’ by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Yet, President Duterte later claimed that he was unaware of the 11 May incident.

If this exposed gap between Chinese actions in the Philippine exclusive economic zone and the Duterte administration’s increasingly confused rhetoric persists or widens, domestic pressure on President Duterte to take a firmer line with China will grow. More House or Senate hearings and media stories on this gap are likely.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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