Manila — In July 2016, Benigno Aquino III, Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor as Philippine president, won a landmark arbitration case at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration which ruled that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea and that China’s claim to the waters is invalid.
The ruling was considered a victory for the Philippines, but which China did not accept as it continued even more vigorously to flex its muscles over the small country’s resource-rich islands, reefs, outcroppings and rocks, especially the areas within the “nine-dash line” or the demarcation line used by China for their claims in the South China Sea, by fast expanding its incursion despite the court ruling that it has violated Philippine sovereign rights.'
Filipino and international analysts and critics are then puzzled at why Duterte’s foreign policy, which his administration called an “independent” direction that was not welcoming to its long-time allies and was friendly to China and Russia, has shifted to one that, with one more pronouncement, would result in the Philippines losing its sovereignty.
One of them, former foreign affairs secretary Alberto del Rosario, called the policy shift as “unfortunate” because it has the potential to squander the hard earned and beneficial relationships of the Philippines with other countries such as the US, Japan, India, Vietnam, its allies in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the regional G-7 bloc and the European Union.
“Friendships are important between and among countries when it comes to diplomacy and mutual respect for international law,” said del Rosario. “The Philippines cannot do it alone. We need the support of our allies and the community of nations that helped us get to where we are in defending our territorial rights.”
Duterte’s turnarounds, reversals and U-turns, which started during his presidential campaign when he said he would jetski to the disputed Scarborough Shoal located in Luzon island and plant a Philippine flag on it to symbolize his stand for his country’s sovereignty, sounded alarm bells.
He repeated this statement in April, when he said he will plant the flag on Pag-asa, one of the islands, on June 12, the Philippine Independence Day. Scarborough and Pag-asa are two of the Spratly islands chain being claimed by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.
But in a few months, he became friendly to China especially after his state visit there in February. In a speech before Filipino migrant workers in his visit to Saudi Arabia in mid-April, he said, in an apparent address to China, “Because of our friendship and because we value your friendship, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag. They said, ‘do not go there, just do not go there, please.’ So, I will correct myself because we value our friendship with China.”
He has also ordered the Philippine military to occupy and put up structures in the disputed islands to reinforce and fortify its territory but not to militarize the islands. "It's like we're all competing to take these islands. And what's ours now at least, let's take it and make a strong point there that this is ours. We must build bunkers or houses there and make provisions for habitation."
Later, he said there is not much to be done with China’s incursions as China continued to build structures and sail closer to Philippine territory, including Benham Rise, a volcanic plateau and undersea region along the Philippine Sea.
He blamed the United States for the current maritime tensions and for not intervening to stop China. As the recent ASEAN meeting failed to calm the tensions, Duterte’s wild claims and pronouncements continue to pivot and prolong the territorial disputes.
American historian Alfred McCoy, quoted in a story in the South China Morning Post, said “It’s a dangerous game that Duterte is playing,” because he believes that in giving China freedom to build structures in the South China Sea, he has endangered the Philippines, making it a pawn in two-pronged strategy by China to deal a crippling blow to US global power.