China’s provocative seizure of an American naval drone in the South China Sea has primarily been seen as a test of U.S. resolve toward China. But Beijing’s brazen move in waters just 50 miles from the Philippines has also set off alarm bells in Manila. Reuters:
The Philippines said the occurrence of the incident inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was “very troubling”.
“Not only does it increase the likelihood of miscalculations that could lead to open confrontation very near the Philippine mainland but the commission of activities other than innocent passage which impinge upon the right of the Philippines over the resources in its EEZ are violations of the Philippines rights over its EEZ,” Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.
This is an unusually tough line to come from the Philippines these days, given President Rodrigo Duterte’s dramatic embrace of China and his efforts toward a bilateral resolution of their disputes in the South China Sea. And Lorenzana is not the only Philippine official to toughen the rhetoric against China of late. On Monday, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay reaffirmed that despite mixed signals from Duterte, the Philippines would not deviate from the Hague tribunal ruling that rejected China’s extensive claims in the South China Sea.
These comments are a timely reminder that there are limits to the Philippines’ accommodation of Chinese interests. Duterte is not the sole driver of the Philippine ship of state, and there are clearly high-level officials in Manila who are more wary of China’s actions in its neighborhood. The drone episode could amplify these concerns, signaling that despite recent concessions, China will not always play nice with the Philippines and that it retains little respect for Manila’s nautical rights.
In the days to come, there is sure to be an internal debate in Manila about how much the Philippines should tolerate in its efforts to improve relations with China. The U.S. response to Beijing’s infraction will no doubt be a key factor. As the New York Times notes, the Obama administration’s typically guarded response is already unnerving Asian allies who believe Washington should have taken a stronger stance. If the United States cannot forcefully stand up to Beijing when an ally’s exclusive economic zone is breached, Duterte may feel validated in his conclusion that the U.S. is not a reliable partner.
Regardless of how the Philippines responds, the larger point here is an important one. When China tests American resolve, perceptions matter, and other countries in the region are watching carefully as they seek to calibrate their own response to China. The Obama administration’s passivity has not only emboldened China, it has left other countries to make their own calculations that threaten to upend the region’s delicate balance—whether it is Malaysia cozying up to China or Vietnam militarizing its outposts to defend against it. The Trump administration will need to make clear reassurances and demonstrate real resolve if it hopes to calm the region’s troubled waters.