President Rodrigo Duterte listens to the welcome remarks of National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) Director General Alex Monteagudo during the Joint 69th National Security Council and 70th NICA Founding Anniversary on July 31, 2019. Joining the President on stage are Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. KING RODRIGUEZ/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO
Rodrigo Duterte will raise the decision of an international arbitration court in The Hague three years ago when he goes to Beijing this month, saying the time has come for him to assert the country’s economic rights in the waters claimed by China.
But there are doubts if the president has enough courage to tell Xi Jinping to adhere to the decision nullifying China’s nine-dash-line territorial claim in the South China Sea and respect the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in Scarborough Shoal and the Reed Bank.
In the first place, the nature of Duterte’s trip to Beijing does not indicate a more formal one-on-one discussion on a serious issue, like the South China Sea. The president will be attending a sporting event and, later, the inauguration of a school building named after his mother.
Duterte will probably have a “pull aside” meeting with top Chinese officials, but it is not sure if they have the time to discuss an issue so serious like an arbitration ruling, which China does not recognize and honor. It is also doubtful if Chinese leaders have time to talk about the 60-40 revenue sharing in an oil-and-gas project in the Reed Bank because it is a private sector-led project left to state-owned China National Off-Shore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) and Philex Petroleum, which holds the service contract in the an area within the Philippines’ EEZ.
It will also be highly doubtful if Duterte will convince Xi to hasten the conclusion of the regional Code of Conduct agreement because it is a multilateral concern, not a simple bilateral negotiation between Manila and Beijing.
China’s ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua, also doubted if the arbitration ruling would be discussed because the president knew China would not change its position and continue to hold on to its claims on the South China Sea based on historical accounts.
Since his first visit to China in October 2016, Duterte had all the chances to invoke the arbitration ruling but never raised it. Is it really the time to invoke it? Are there compelling reasons why Duterte has decided now is the time to raise the issue?
It appears the president’s statements on invoking the arbitration ruling, pushing for an early conclusion on a Code of Conduct and securing a 60-40 deal on oil-and-gas exploration and extraction in the Reed Bank are more directed at a domestic audience, to deal with growing dissatisfaction with his administration’s China policy.
It could be a case of allowing the steam off from the pressure cooker, a brilliant political move to appease the military sector and the public in general following independent polls that showed an increase in Filipinos’ distrust in China due to its aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
Two months ago, a Chinese steel-hulled vessel rammed and sank a wooden local fishing boat in the Reed Bank, leaving behind 22 fishermen in the water. Luckily, a Vietnamese fishing boat rescued them six hours after the “maritime incident.”
The government has not acted on the official report that the Philippine Coast Guard had submitted, placing the blame solely on the shoulders of the Chinese ship that abandoned the fishermen after the sinking of their boat.
Before the public forgets the boat-sinking issue, retired generals in the Duterte administration began expressing concern on China’s activities in the country’s borders as well as in other parts of the country, as Chinese investors show interest in putting up businesses, mostly off-shore gaming facilities.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, an ex-army general, started the offensive, describing China as a bully after it seized control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Another ex-army general, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, expressed concern over hundreds of Chinese vessels circling a Philippine-occupied feature in the Spratly Islands.
The Philippines was repairing and upgrading its military facilities on Pagasa (Thitu) Island and the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels around it was a virtual blockade, preventing the resupply rotation of personnel and delivery of construction materials to complete a beach ramp on the feature.
Esperon also raised alarm over the influx of Chinese nationals to the country, calling it a potential threat. An estimated one million Chinese tourists visit the country, many of them finding employment in the retail, service and construction sectors. The labor department said there were more than 138,000 Chinese workers employed in Philippine Off-Shore Gaming Operations (POGO), but the actual number of workers could reach nearly half a million because most of them were unregistered and illegal.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also moved to end the visa-on-arrival scheme for tourists at the country’s ports of entry to address the increasing number of illegal aliens, not only Chinese nationals, as Islamist militants could also take advantage of the travel policy.
The latest controversy involves two Chinese survey vessels intruding into the Philippines’ EEZ. The movement and activities of these oceanographic vessels were illegal because they did not ask permission from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
There were also reports of Chinese warships, including Beijing’s only operational aircraft carrier, entering Philippine waters, passing through the narrow Sibutu Straits in the south. The Philippine Navy also raised concern over China’s interests on three strategic islands in Luzon. The military rarely talks to the media on national security concerns. In the past, the military communicated its concern through the chain of command, unless authorized otherwise by the political leadership.
It is doubtful Malacañang would agree on the press statement of Capt. Jonathan Zata and the strong statement from Arsenio Andolong, the defense department spokesman, who called China’s presence in the country’s EEZ as a form of squatting.
Pressure is building up within the Duterte’s government to act on Chinese coercive and abusive behaviors, whether these are done officially or otherwise by their nationals.
The president has definitely noticed these signs. Thus, he is taking some action before the issue spiral outs of control. He may not really raise the arbitration issue in Beijing later this month but he really needs to appease the worried and nervous military sector with strong anti-China sentiments.