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Duterte's embarrassing to and fro

Ana P. Santos Manila
April 11, 2017

Confusing pronouncements on the South China Sea and mounting international condemnation of the bloody crackdown on illegal drugs could lead the Philippines into a foreign policy crisis. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

China Peking Staatsbesuch Philippinen Xi Jinping Duterte
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alarmed regional neighbors when he ordered troops to occupy all South China Sea reefs.

"It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant. At least, let us get what is ours now and make a strong point that it is ours," Duterte said.

The president further said he may go to the islands himself and plant a Philippine flag there in June, in time for the Philippine Independence Day on June 12.

The statement was interpreted as the Philippines asserting its claim on the disputed South China Sea, a resource-rich area and major maritime highway where an estimated $5 trillion worth of goods pass through every year. It was also an about-face to Duterte's earlier moves to forge warmer relations with China through bilateral trade and cooperation.

Damage control

The Department of Defense (DND) later clarified the president's statement.

"The Philippines is currently occupying nine reefs and atolls in the region. There are no plans to construct new structures. We will only upgrade the facilities for our personnel there," DND public affairs chief, Arsenio Andolong, told DW.

Inselstreit im Südchinesischen Meer
Duterte's statement was interpreted as the Philippines asserting its claim on the disputed South China SeaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R.B. Tongo

This kind of U-turn and follow up explanations to clarify the president's pronouncements is not unusual for the Duterte administration. In March, the Philippines requested that China explain the presence of its ships in Benham Rise. Beijing responded by saying the Philippines could not claim the area as its own. The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) awarded Benham Rise to the Philippines in 2012.

Later, at a press conference, Duterte confused Benham Rise with the South China Sea, which is located on the opposite side of the archipelago.

"I think the president needs a primer on the South China Sea," Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the Philippines College of Law, told DW. "All places in the area that could be occupied are already occupied by the Philippines, Vietnam and China," the expert said.

Under this scenario, an order by Duterte to occupy the reefs could be taken as intent to build new artificial reefs in the area or spark conflict by occupying the reefs and atolls claimed by other countries.

Either way, such pronouncements are befuddling.

"It happens when the chief architect of the country's foreign policy is not fully informed about the region," Batongbacal said.

China Philippinen Konflikt um Fischergebiete im Südchinesischen Meer
'The Philippines is currently occupying nine reefs and atolls in the region,' said DND public affairs chief Arsenio AndolongImage: Reuters/E. De Castro

Increasing isolation

"China's strategic ambition is to become a dominant power in the region. Its movements in the region are not economic, they are geopolitical," Jose Antonio Custodio, a maritime historian and international security expert, told DW. 

The flip-flopping on the South China Sea coupled with Duterte's dismissal of calls from the international community to end his brutal crackdown on illegal drugs could further isolate the Philippines from its traditional allies like the United States and Europe.

The European Parliament was the latest international body to call for an international investigation into "unlawful killings and other violations" linked to President Duterte's controversial war on drugs.

"The US and the EU continue to criticize our human rights violations which could have economic implications. This is the most serious foreign policy crisis that we have experienced in the last 30 years," Custodio told DW.

Losing traditional trade partners like the US and other allies could lead to the Philippines increasing its economic dependence on China.

"That would further invalidate our claim to the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise. It neutralizes the Philippines and allows China to project further into the region," Custodio added.

But Charles Jose, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, told DW "there is no inconsistency in our policy on the South China Sea."

On Monday, Duterte clarified his own statements and said, "China can relax. We will not go to war with you."

Duterte is scheduled to visit China in May to continue talks that he started during his state visit to Beijing in October last year.