“West Philippine Sea Redux”, by Malcolm Cook

Commentary 2016/17, 16 May 2016

On Sunday, in his first major press conference as the president-in-waiting, Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his desire for better relations with China. China’s ambassador to the Philippines will be one of the first members of the diplomatic corps to be granted a meeting with the president-in-waiting. Duterte, again, said he would consider bilateral talks with China over their territorial disputes in the West Philippines Sea. This is what Beijing has long said it wants.

President Aquino came to power in 2010 also seeking closer relations with China focused primarily on the burgeoning trade relationship. Yet, Chinese unilateral actions around Scarborough Shoal put paid to this. In 2012, China gained de facto control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines after a maritime standoff where the Philippines blinked and China did not. The loss of Scarborough Shoal instigated the Aquino administration’s decision to take the disputes with China to the Arbitration Tribunal under UNCLOS and to reject further offers of bilateral talks with China. Philippine public opinion strongly favoured the Aquino administration’s change of tack and strongly opposed China’s actions.

Chinese actions on Scarborough Shoal (located 123 nautical miles from the island of Luzon and 550 nautical miles from Hainan island) could again derail the next Philippine administration’s desires for closer, calmer relations with China. It is widely reported that China is considering developing Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island to support military-grade facilities.  Any Chinese unilateral actions of this ilk on the horizon of the Philippines’ main island would make it very difficult for any president not to push back against China through the very limited means available to the Philippines. This is what President Aquino and his administration did in 2012. Duterte, early in his term after a surprise victory and with a strongman political persona to uphold, would likely follow suit.

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

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