South China Sea: Does Duterte Know What He Is Doing?

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seems to have a South China Sea strategy after all: trying to play Russia against China and both Russia and China against America; and get a few business deals in the process.

This is apparent from the trips he has made since he became President. “It is clear since 2016 when Duterte became President that he has shifted his focus to China as the pre-eminent partner,” says Dr. Namrata Goswami, Senior Analyst and Author. “This was obvious from his five visits to China and with none to the U.S. to meet Trump.”

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Meanwhile, Duterte has been courting Russia, with a second trip to Moscow this week, where he sought to form a defense and trade partnership with America’s adversary.

Why is Duterte cozying up to China and Russia? America has been the country’s traditional ally and second largest trade partner. Back in 2016, the two countries together won an international tribunal against China in the South China Sea.

Does he really knows what’s he’s doing?

Goswami thinks so. “From Duterte’s perspective, if the U.S. is serious about the South China Sea, it should have clearly responded with military might when China started building those artificial islands,” she says. “Since it did not, Duterte views a relationship with China as more to Philippines’ advantage than the U.S. China has also been building upon its influence in the region, through its economic and diplomatic efforts and Duterte’s change in tactic reveals that.”

What’s the implication of Duterte’s cozying up to China? “The deeper strategic implication of Duterte’s move could be that it is a deliberate ploy to establish closer ties with China so that the U.S. does not take its former colony for granted, or ignores some of its internal issues, or think it’s ok to meddle into Philippines’s internal problems,” she says. Like his drug war and human rights abuses, both of which America opposes.

And cozying up to Russia could make Duterte’s position clear for Washington, though it won’t deter Beijing’s South China Sea aggression.

Simply put, Duterte is placing the drug war ahead of the South China Sea.

And the vast majority of Filipinos seem to agree with his agenda. “Duterte is very popular in his country with 80 per cent of the people satisfied with his performance as President despite 87 per cent of respondents to a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations, in August, believed he should assert more in the South China Sea,” says Goswami. “Duterte’s appears to favor a policy of engagement with China to deal with aggression in the SCS.”