South China Sea

In Seeking Distance from America, Duterte Plays into China's Hands

Ed Bithell

Rodrigo Duterte is no stranger to controversy. Having likened himself to Hitler and called Barack Obama a 'son of a whore', the irrepressible Philippine president has seen his relations with much of the world's media and the Philippines' greatest ally, the US, grow increasingly sour. This comes despite relying on the international community's support for his country's ongoing dispute in the South China Sea over ownership of the Spratly Islands, a case that recently went before the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

Duterte sailed closer to the wind again by cancelling joint military exercises with the US scheduled to take place in the South China Sea. The Balikatan exercises, meaning 'shoulder to shoulder' in Tagalog, ran for the 32nd time last year, and despite some protests from Beijing formed part of a 'strong message' that the US was determined to send in the Pacific theatre. The exercises are controversial amongst some in the Philippines, and certainly reflect enormous US influence over the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Instead, Duterte declared that he ‘can always go to China’, seemingly threatening the US with a divorce in favour of his northern neighbour.

It is tempting to think that this could work out in his favour, leading to preferential treatment from the Chinese in appreciation for rare cooperation amongst South East Asian states - as a bloc, ASEAN opposes China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and until now, the Philippines has been no exception. However, Duterte's ditching Obama may easily lead to gains for nobody but China.

While the US does exert military power through joint exercises and hosted bases in the region, any potential hegemonic aims are fundamentally limited, both by a lack of its territorial claims and the impossibility of subjecting China or dismissing its claims completely without direct action. By contrast, the relatively precarious nature of US influence through cooperation with ASEAN means that China, which claims sovereignty over essentially the entire South China Sea, and refuses to acknowledge rival claims, could use Duterte’s essentially tactical friendship and cooperation to start a strategy of playing one nation off against another in order to weaken all their claims, aiming to turn the South China Sea from a multipolar area, with a united ASEAN balanced against China thanks to US support, into a Chinese lake. This would then further push out any chance of favour from Beijing, as China finds it no longer needs particular friends.

While Duterte appears to be able to pick and choose his friends on the international stage, the reality is that this could easily backfire. If he gets his way and US influence in the region - or at least the Philippines - declines, replaced with growing Chinese involvement in infrastructure and natural resources as well as Beijing calling the shots on territorial claims, he may soon realise that the Chinese are interested in being much closer than the Americans ever were - and more demanding too.

Image: President Duterte meeting Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. By Presidential Communications Operations Office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.