SINCE July 1, 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has pursued what he calls an “independent foreign policy.” This appears consistent with the provision of the 1987 Constitution, but until he came to power, no Filipino President has ever defined it in its peculiar terms. During the better part of the past 20 months, this tended to consist of a needlessly combative attitude towards the United States, the Philippines’ oldest ally, and an even more needless fawning upon China, the rising Asia Pacific power. DU30 tried not only to wean us away from excessive dependence on the US, which is not a bad thing, but above all to install China as our sovereign lord and master. A fatal disease rather than a cure.
It all began as personal outbursts against then US President Barack Obama and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg, for raising some concern about DU30’s murderous drug war. It orbited into space when the Philippines won its arbitration case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague and DU30 refused to assert Philippine sovereign rights over the disputed maritime areas which the court had upheld in our favor. It threatened doomsday when DU30 declared during his state visit to China in October 2016 that he was “separating” economically and militarily from the US and aligning himself with China and Russia “against the world.”
Cashing chips in Beijing
Neither Chinese President Xi Jinping nor Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed the alleged alliance contra mundum. But this did not prevent DU30 from cashing in his chips with Beijing. He came home from that state visit with 13 government-to-government agreements, and $24 billion worth of business deals and pledges, in addition to a $15 million donation to his anti-drug campaign. This was followed eight months later by military deliveries of 3,000 rifles and six million units of ammunition. Beijing’s largesse is exceeded only by Japan’s offer of 3 trillion yen in official development assistance (about $29 billion) at an interest rate of .001 percent per annum over a period of 25 years with a 10-year grace period, and another $500 million package coming from the private sector.
“Separation” from the US played in the headlines for a little while, but it eventually fizzled out when Obama left the White House, and DU3O saw in the new US President, Donald Trump, a man after his own heart; and vice versa. After a couple of friendly telephone chats with his Filipino counterpart, Trump came to Manila last November to attend the Asean and East Asia summits, and managed not to say one word about the summary killings in DU30’s drug war. The other world leaders followed Trump’s lead, except for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who made himself the group’s “designated naysayer,” and got the only broadside from DU30.
Strong ties with Trump
Trump’s deliberate silence on human rights cemented his personal ties with DU30, and the military and defense ties between their two countries. Thus, despite DU30’s earlier threats to junk the military alliance, the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty remained undisturbed, together with the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows US forces, arms and equipment to be stationed inside Philippine military bases. Cooperation in the fight against international terrorism remains strong; the US played a key role in ending the IS-aligned Maute extremist siege in Marawi City from May 2017 for the next several months. Joint military exercises are uninterrupted, and important ship visits continue.
Last week Malacañang welcomed the visit of the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the guided missile-destroyer USS Michael Murphy to the Philippines. Carl Vinson’s last notable visit was in 2011 when it made a port call in Manila after burying the body of the late al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the North Arabian sea on May 2, 2011. Then President B. S. Aquino 3rd, accompanied by his Armed Forces Chief of Staff and four top Cabinet members, boarded the aircraft carrier as it entered Philippine waters.
Neutral observers credit the apparent improvement of ties, after a frosty interval, to the “excellent personal chemistry” between the two unorthodox leaders, and the kind of contacts the first Asian American ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, has been able to establish with the Filipino president. Kim appears to have had a calming effect on DU30, after the latter’s celebrated run-in with Kim’s unhappy predecessor.
Some disturbing effects
But DU30’s announced “pivot to China” has had some disturbing effects, which cannot be easily reversed, and for which no easy solutions, even in the long term, seem to be in sight. These involve questions of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national pride, not to mention international maritime security for the entire region.
The first of these refers to China’s unimpeded fortification and militarization of disputed maritime features in the Spratlys, some of which lie within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.
In 2013, the Philippines, invoking the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea which it ratified on May 8, 1984, and which China ratified on June 7, 1996, asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague to arbitrate the dispute involving the two countries’ maritime rights and entitlements in the South China Sea, the status of certain geographic features, and the lawfulness of certain Chinese actions in the area.
The case against China
The Philippines asked the tribunal to declare that China’s rights and entitlements must be based on UNCLOS, not on any claim to historic rights like those based on the so-called nine-dash line marked on Chinese maps, to the extent that they exceed the entitlements permitted by UNCLOS. It asked the tribunal to resolve the dispute concerning entitlements to maritime zones generated under the convention by Scarborough Shoal and certain features in the Spratlys, which are incapable on their own of generating entitlements to maritime areas and cannot sustain human habitat or economic life and do not generate an entitlement to an EEZ of 200 nautical miles or to a continental shelf.
It further asked the tribunal to resolve disputes like Chinese interference in its rights to fishing, oil exploration, navigation, destruction of the marine environment by harvesting endangered species and use of methods destructive of the fragile ecosystem, and the construction of artificial islands and installations in the seven reefs, namely Mischief Reef, Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef (North), Johnson Reef, Hughes Reef and Subi Reef.
China refused to recognize the tribunal’s jurisdiction, but the court assumed jurisdiction anyway, pursuant to the Convention.
On July 12, 2016, the court ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the so-called “nine-dash line.” It found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an EEZ; therefore it ruled, even without declaring a boundary, that certain areas are with the EEZ of the Philippines, since they are not overlapped by any possible Chinese entitlement.
The tribunal found China’s island-building activities in the seven reefs a violation of several articles of the Convention, with respect to the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ and continental shelf. Nonetheless, it ruled that these do not constitute “military activities” within the meaning of the relevant provision of the Convention.
DU30’s first challenge
Almost everyone was ecstatic about the ruling, except for China, which refused to recognize its existence, and DU30 who publicly and quickly doused it with cold water. He echoed China’s position that the dispute should be discussed between the two parties alone, without recourse to an international legal or diplomatic process or forum. This seemed to be a reasonable first step in approaching the issue—bilateral conversations cannot be avoided in deciding what final steps to pursue; but it turned out that for China, the bilateral approach would exclude the various means of settling disputes under international law.
DU30 embarked on his conversations with Beijing without any mention of the Spratlys. This was most unfortunate. For without having to invoke the arbitral ruling, DU30 could have agreed with Xi Jinping to work together to enhance Philippine-Chinese relations without being impeded by their maritime dispute in the Spratlys. They could have agreed to set it aside for the time being and endeavor to settle it according to their best mutual interests, in the course of time. In the meantime, they could have agreed that all the disputed areas remain as they are, that neither party would introduce any change that would alter the geographic or physical character of the same.
The island-building starts
No such agreement was entered into, so China promptly began its island-building activities, hauling black sand and other types of soil from the long Philippine coastline to reclaim and fortify the seven reefs. Since then China has built thousands of acres of runways, helipads, airstrips, hangars, support buildings, loading piers, radar stations and surveillance structures on these features; and satellite pictures have shown a chain of artificial islands ready to function as a forward naval base. Some have described this as the transformation of artificial islands into stationary Chinese “aircraft carriers” to match the US aircraft carriers plying the Indo-Pacific.
What can the Philippine Navy do about it? Nothing. What can the US, the Japanese and the Australian navies, individually or together, do about it? Nothing. Can any international body compel China to dismantle all those fortifications and bring back the artificial islands to their original state as submerged undersea features that have no claim to any EEZ and cannot sustain the barest human existence? No. The maritime boundaries of the Spratlys will have been drawn by mischief, in favor of China, for good.
A pathetic response
In an abject self-justification, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the Philippines might yet thank China for its island-building activities, if and when it finally takes over those artificial islands in the end. How truly pathetic!
To this question of national sovereignty and territorial integrity has now been added a question of national pride. The DU30 government has just learned that China has been naming certain undersea features in the ocean, including five such features in the Philippine Rise (formerly Benham Rise), the undersea region near Aurora province believed to be the size of Greece. China does not contest Philippine sovereign rights over the Rise, but why should it be the one to name these undersea features rather than the Philippine government?
Again, an abject and pathetic statement from Harry Roque says that China has given Chinese names to food items like siopao, siomai, ampao, without depriving anyone the right to savor them. But Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonio Carpio has taken a strong position, saying China has no right to name anything in the Philippine Rise; it is the right and duty of the Philippine government to do it. It’s a matter of national dignity and national pride, if nothing else.
On the basis of these two issues alone, I cannot see DU30’s pivot to China enduring at the cost of stable and friendly relations with the United Sates, Japan, Asean and the rest of the Indo-Pacific region. As it was fundamentally wrong to try to embrace China by downgrading ties with old historic partners, it will be fundamentally wrong to downgrade relations with China in favor of the others. But DU30 can still frame a truly independent foreign policy that seeks to develop robust friendship with all, without being engulfed in any conflict between one major player and another.
An “equidistant” foreign policy, vis-à-vis China on the one hand and the US on the other, seems to me DU30’s best path to the future.