It’s easy to say Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte needs help from China for his country’s development in exchange for laying aside a maritime sovereignty dispute. In October Beijing pledged $24 billion in aid and investment for the country where a quarter of the 102 million people lives in poverty. And after years of friction, Beijing now firmly controls Scarborough Shoal, a major South China Sea fishery coveted by boats based out of the Philippine island Luzon just 220 kilometers away.
But here’s a new reality: China needs the Philippines just as much, maybe more, as the other way around. You can tell by how mildly the Chinese foreign ministry reacted April 7 – just voicing “concern” – after Duterte said he would militarize the Spratly Islands in the same contested sea. Duterte backpedaled over the following week, ending on a milder commitment to improve infrastructure on nine islets held already by the Philippines. China quickly buried its concern, probably not something it would do over concern about, say, Japan or the United States.
Beijing needs its 7-month-old friend Manila to hold off pressure from more powerful countries.
If China can choreograph its own relations with all four Southeast Asian nations that dispute its aggressive, decade-old expansion in the same 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, it can easily ignore threats from the United States, the world court or power blocs such as the G7. The G7 (group of seven big countries) foreign ministers issued a joint communique this month indirectly calling on China to live by a world arbitration court ruling in The Hague last year. The statement expresses “strong opposition” to any unilateral actions such as threats of force, “large-scale” land reclamation or military use of the sea’s islets. The arbitration court said China lacked a legal basis to claim 95% of the sea and occupy the 370-kilometer exclusive economic zones of the other countries.
If unsatisfied with China, the Philippines can re-embrace U.S. military help through a series of mutual aid agreements dating back to 1951. China fears most an American role in the maritime dispute because of its large, sophisticated military compared to those in Southeast Asia. Duterte is also friendly with Japan, an old China foe that tracks the United States in trying to contain Chinese influence at sea.
“I don’t think Duterte has to do anything else to impress China,” says Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. “What he has already done, badmouthing (U.S. ex-president) Obama and putting The Hague ruling aside, has already won him in good stead with the Chinese.”
A falling-out with Beijing might cost Manila aid and investment, but the Philippines has other survival means given its speedy economic growth. Duterte has enchanted China by angrily rejecting more U.S. influence in the Philippines since he took office in June.
But for China, a new split with the Philippines will put a troublesome naysayer at its doorstep again. Beijing has entered friendly talks with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, the other three states with competing South China Sea claims. The Philippines is the fourth piece of that puzzle.
It was Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III who filed for world court arbitration in view of the Scarborough Shoal dispute going back to 2012. A lot of Filipinos remain leery of Chinese influence in their country.
Any re-inflammation of problems would re-energize U.S. and Japanese support for the Philippines. It could pile criticism on Beijing at international forums that it cares about. It’s unclear, for example, to what degree Western European G7 countries will attend China’s “New Silk Road” summit next month to discuss Pan-Eurasian investment led by Beijing, some scholars say.
To keep things smooth, China will probably avoid revisiting the Pacific Ocean side of the Philippine exclusive economic zone after public over Chinese ships that lingered there last year at a resource-rich undersea plateau called Benham Rise. Beijing’s coast guard may keep control of Scarborough Shoal, but people in one Luzon Island fishing town say it avoids pressing further into the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. Vessels from Taiwan and Vietnam aren’t always so kind, they add.
It helps that Duterte is playing along, too. “Given that Duterte has been careful to clarify that there will be no militarization of the (Spratly Island) features and that the intent is to improve the living conditions on the currently occupied features, I do not think China will be overly critical,” says Carl Baker, director of programs with the think tank Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.