Asia's Game of Thrones
Beijing’s Opening Bargain with Manila

As Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives in Beijing, Chinese sources are already leaking hints of the deal he may be offered on the South China Sea: a concession granting Filippino fishermen access to the disputed waters of the Scarborough Shoal. Reuters has more:

 “Everybody can go, but there will be conditions,” one of the Chinese sources who speaks regularly with senior officials told Reuters, referring to Chinese and Filipino fishermen.

Asked what the conditions were, the source said: “The two countries would have to form working groups to iron out details.”

It was unclear, however, if China would agree to joint coastguard patrols.

The sources did not say what, if anything, China might demand from Manila in exchange for the fishing concession. […]

If all goes according to script, fishery cooperation would be one of more than 10 broad framework agreements the two countries would sign during Duterte’s visit, the sources said, without giving further details.

Nothing has been finalized at this point, but the story offers a glimpse into Chinese thinking. A minor concession on fishing access for Filipino fishermen may be just enough for Duterte to save face at home. The volatile Philippine president has shown little interest in rallying diplomatic pressure against Beijing’s South China Sea claims, but in the face of domestic pressure, he has promised to raise the issue during his trip. A fishing agreement could be spun as a win in the Philippines without fundamentally damaging China’s claims.

Meanwhile, as Duterte’s trip causes anxiety that the Philippines could tilt away from the U.S., Vietnam has stepped up to defend American involvement in the Asia-Pacific.

At a U.S.-Vietnam defense policy dialogue in Hanoi yesterday, Vietnam’s Vice Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh “affirmed that Vietnam will support the U.S. and other partners to intervene in the region as long as it brings peace, stability, and prosperity,” according to Reuters.

The Vietnamese affirmation of American “intervention” in the region is a timely development that is sure to be welcomed in Washington. The Obama administration has sought to make good on its “rebalance” in Asia by lifting the arms embargo with Vietnam and backing its claims against Beijing in the South China Sea.

Still, the unpredictable stance of the Duterte administration in Manila shows that the rebalance is not entirely under Obama’s control. If China can get the Philippines on its side, granting fishing rights would be a small price to pay for Beijing in its quest to get the upper hand in the region.

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