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Duterte’s South China Sea stance could shake up security ties with Japan, U.S.

by

Staff Writer

Take a breath. Tough-talking Philippine president-elect Rodrigo Duterte is unlikely to ride a jet ski to plant a flag on a China-held island, as he promised in a stump speech.

He is more likely to seek talks with Beijing and a freezing of the disputes, putting the disagreements on ice.

“I would say to China, do not claim anything here — and I will not insist also that it is ours,” he told reporters as the votes were counted in Monday’s presidential poll.

Duterte has drawn comparisons with U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump for his threats to wipe out kidnappers and thieves. He told drug addicts: “Either you will kill me or I will kill you, idiots.”

Bluster or not, the rhetoric gained him more than 38 percent of the vote — an insurmountable lead, an officially authorized poll monitor said Tuesday.

The longtime mayor of the southern Philippine city of Davao may shake up relations not only with Beijing but also with allies Tokyo and Washington.

“A prospective Duterte presidency will most likely see efforts at rebuilding high-level communication channels with China, negotiations over joint-development agreements, and an uptick in Chinese investments, particularly in infrastructure,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at De La Salle University in Manila.

The Philippines, together with the U.S. and Japan, have sparred with China over its so-called nine-dash line claim to most of the South China Sea — including the Scarborough Shoal, which lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

Under President Benigno Aquino’s hard-line policy toward Beijing over the South China Sea dispute, Manila has warmly embraced Tokyo and Washington.

Last week, Japan finalized a deal to lease up to five Maritime Self-Defense Force TC-90 training aircraft to the Philippines, marking the first time Japan has leased military aircraft to a foreign country after it eased a self-imposed ban on weapons exports. And in another sign of the two nations’ deepening security ties, the Philippines has also hosted several MSDF vessels this year — including a visit by a submarine and a so-called helicopter destroyer — for exercises and port calls.

Washington’s ties with Manila have also grown to see the Philippines become the most crucial U.S. partner in Southeast Asia. In March, under a Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the two allies reached a deal allowing for a rotating U.S. military presence at five Philippine bases.

This fell short of Washington’s request for eight bases.

“I expect a more lukewarm relationship with America, with Subic and Clark and other major bases kept off limits under the EDCA,” Heydarian said.

Moreover, Duterte could choose to ignore the result of an international court case pitting the Philippines against China over its claims in the South China Sea. A decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the coming weeks is widely expected to rule in favor of Manila.

One option is for him to view the outcome merely as an opinion advisory.

“He will not continue President Aquino’s hard-line stance, and the only question is how radically and quickly he will steer the country’s foreign policy,” said Jay Batongbacal, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

Late Monday, Duterte said he would call for multilateral talks on the South China Sea that would include the United States and Japan, as well as rival claimants. China has winced at such suggestions and repeatedly said that the dispute must be solved bilaterally.

Duterte also said China should respect the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the waters off its coast and, instead of facing off, the two countries could work together in exploiting offshore oil and gas as joint-venture partners.

“If we want joint ventures, fine. I believe in sharing,” he was quoted as telling reporters in his home base of Davao.

The success or otherwise of this approach depends largely on China’s response.

“I think the ball is really in Beijing’s court on this,” said Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “If China begins, as is expected, to build military installations on Scarborough Shoal then no Philippine president will be in a position to take a softer line toward these disputes, especially a self-declared strongman like Duterte.” While Duterte’s proposal to improve ties has been “music to China’s ears, if Beijing takes assertive actions then the music will die,” Cook said.

Meanwhile, reviewing Manila’s position on China would almost certainly require a delicate balancing act by Duterte — and a recalibration of security ties with Japan and the U.S.

“I’m sure China will also ask him to downgrade security relations with Japan, which can still remain as a key economic partner,” said Heydarian.

The Philippines has been a major destination for Japanese investment and one of the top recipients of foreign aid, with Tokyo giving the country nearly 27.8 billion yen in official development assistance in fiscal 2014, according to Japanese Foreign Ministry data.

As mayor of Davao, Duterte helped the city secure millions of yen in aid for infrastructure projects. And according to Batongbacal, Duterte’s experience as a local politician and his ties to Japan could play an outsized role in his decision-making.

“He will, however, be constrained to balance his relations with Japan with the need to manage relations with China,” Batongbacal added.