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Philippine President Duterte’s China pivot hasn’t reduced South China Sea tensions


Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines met Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 19, 2019, Beijing.

Kenzaburo Fukuhara | Kyodo News | Getty Images

More than five years on, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s Beijing-friendly postures have not tamed China’s aggression in the disputed South China Sea — and the next Philippine leader should be bolder in challenging Beijing, said a political and risk analyst.

The Philippines will host general elections to vote for a new president in MayDuterte’s six year term ends. Duterte has sought closer ties with Beijingand stated that he was ready to abandon his country’s territorial dispute with China in South China Sea.  

For decades, China has been involved in disputes over territorial rights in the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbours including the Philippines.

China controls almost all of the waterways. China created artificial islands in the water, and Chinese fishing fleets have taken over the whole of the river. maritime militia vesselsInternationally recognized areas of swarming are those that belong to another country.    

Peaches Lauren Vergara from Amador Research Services (a consulting and research firm) stated that “the most favorable scenario would be for the Philippines if there was a fundamental shift in the mind of the elected leader in 2022.”

Vergara stated that the next Philippine president must not adopt “a defeatist attitude shown by current leadership” and should challenge China more strongly. a December report published by the Asia Society Policy Institute.

CNBC reached out to both the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese embassies at Singapore, the Philippines, in order for comments on this report. No one has responded to the report at time of publication.

China tensions

Duterte is only a few months into his presidential term. China has not fulfilled its promises to invest in infrastructure in the Philippines. Meanwhile, tensions between Manila, Beijing continue to rise in the South China Sea. a December report by think tank International Crisis Group.

According to the report, “Many people in the Philippines are becoming increasingly skeptical about rapprochement China” if it involves giving up certain maritime features that have been disputed.

Vergara, an Asia Society Policy Institute researcher, stated that 27% of all fisheries in the Philippines is dependent on the South China Sea. According to reports, scientists warned that Chinese activities in the disputed waters threaten the fishing industry.

However, the Philippine petroleum exploration activities at sea have been hampered by tensions with China.

“This has serious repercussions for the country’s ability to achieve energy security as its main source of natural gas for electricity supply — Malampaya — nears depletion,” Vergara said.

Duterte’s government has protested more loudly the presence Chinese vessels in South China Sea areas that are internationally recognised as Filipino.

Teodoro Locsin Jr. was Foreign Affairs Secretary for May. directed an unusually aggressive tweet at BeijingThe South China Sea was at the heart of the dispute between the two nations. Locsin Jr. claimed that China was threatening its friendship with the Philippines.   

Philippine presidential race

Vergara stated that China’s assertiveness has risen and Duterte’s “subservience” to Beijing have brought the South China Sea issues into the spotlight in the Philippines.

Analysts believe that Philippine Presidential Candidates who appear pro-China may face resistance from the people.  

Ferdinand “Bongbong”, the son of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and former Senator, talks to media following his filing for candidacy in the 2022 presidential election. He spoke to them at Sofitel Harbor Garden Tent, October 6, 2021, Pasay Metro Manila, Philippines.

Rouelle Umali | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. — son and namesake of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos — led the latest opinion poll on the presidential race. In a December survey by independent pollster Pulse AsiaRespondents favored Marcos Jr. 53%.

Marcos Jr., in comparison to Duterte would pursue “more balanced relations” with China and the U.S. if elected. This was stated by Peter Mumford (practice head South and Southeast Asia for risk consultancy Eurasia Group), last month.

Navigating U.S.-China competition

One of the most contentious topics in geopolitical rivalry between China and the U.S. is the South China Sea. Administration of the U.S. Joe BidenIt has called out China’s “unlawful” claims “bullying” in the sea.

This contest is challenging for the Philippines. It is the Southeast Asian nation that has won. a defense treaty with the U.S.China, however, is the country’s largest neighbour and its top economic partner.

According to the International Crisis Group, “A critical question is whether or not the Philippines can maneuver between China and America without being forced into a conflict.”

Manila has been doing a good job of hedging. It said that Manila’s balancing act could soon be unsustainable as Beijing seeks regional ambitions, and Washington pushes back.”

It was said that the Philippines could not resolve the South China Sea issue on its merits. For territorial disputes to be managed, the Philippines should cooperate with its neighboring countries on common concerns, like fisheries management or law enforcement.  

International Crisis Group said that the Philippines should push for a code or conduct to be established between Southeast Asian countries, China, and Japan to help manage tensions at sea.

While none of these actions will solve the maritime dispute that is becoming more entrenched, they can help to keep conflict at bay by reducing the likelihood of incidents at sea escalate into conflict.