Duterte may stump up with more nationalist rhetoric, but his true message to Beijing is plain

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines addresses the UN General Assembly via videolink on Sept. 22, 2020. Photo courtesy of Manuel Elías/UN

Since coming to office, President Rodrigo Duterte has largely ignored the 2016 arbitration award made in favor of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea. But in an astounding turnaround, Duterte used a speech last month to the United Nations General Assembly to declare “the award is now part of international law” and that “we firmly reject attempts to undermine it.”

Yet it would be a mistake to see this statement as marking a new stance in Duterte’s foreign policy. This is a diversionary strategy, targeted to an audience at home rather than one abroad.

Duterte is sensitive to the negative perceptions about his “appeasement policy” that seems to be yielding too much, too often to Beijing. He has preferred a non-confrontational stance with China, instead aiming to secure Chinese loans and investments to fund his “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program. But this approach has inadvertently emboldened Beijing to continue with its reclamation projects in the contested waterways of the South China Sea, restricting access to traditional fishing grounds, conducting illegal maritime research, and deploying advanced military assets to Philippines-claimed areas.

Moreover, most of the China’s promised funding and projects in the Philippines remain unfulfilled. Among the nine deals signed with the Export-Import Bank of China, only two projects are in their early stages of implementation. Without any completed Chinese-funded projects to point to as a legacy, Duterte is increasingly accused of trading away Philippine security interests without obtaining substantial economic benefits in return.

So Duterte’s UN speech