The Philippines has been a small, but exceedingly difficult-to-extract thorn in China’s side. After all, it was Manila that challenged Beijing’s South China Sea claims in international court. Manila has also become a real ally of the United States, buying American ships and allowing U.S. troops to rotate through its bases. But now, the Philippines has elected a new Trump-like president, Roberto Duterte, who promises to create more distance with Washington. Reuters:
The Philippines has traditionally been one of Washington’s staunchest supporters in its stand-off with Beijing over the South China Sea, a vital trade route where China has built artificial islands, airstrips and other military facilities.
Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City who swept to victory in a May 9 election, has backed multilateral talks to settle rows over the South China Sea that would include the United States, Japan and Australia as well as claimant nations.
He has also called on China, which claims most of the sea, to respect the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone granted to coastal states under international law.
Asked by reporters if he would push for bilateral talks with China, Duterte replied: “We have this pact with the West, but I want everybody to know that we will be charting a course of our own.
“It will not be dependent on America. And it will be a line that is not intended to please anybody but the Filipino interest.”
Although Duterte didn’t budge much on China, his new Philippines First attitude has caught Beijing’s attention. On Monday, President Xi Jinping sent Duterte a congratulatory note in which he expressed his hopes for improved relations. Reuters:
“The friendly, stable and healthy development of Sino-Philippine relations accords with the basic interests of both countries and both peoples,” Xi was quoted as saying in the ministry statement
It’s difficult to tell whether this will turn into an opportunity for China or not. Duterte has previously said he would be open to compromise in the South China Sea, but he’s also sounded rather hawkish. The problem for the Philippines is that it’s too small a country to have much impact in foreign affairs on its own. If it wants to pursue any serious foreign policy, the Philippines will have to stick to a side.
Which way Duterte goes will have important implications for U.S. Asia policy. The Pentagon is counting on having access to Filipino bases and docks. If U.S. rights to those facilities happened revoked, that would be a coup for China.