Asia's Game of Thrones
Philippines Defense Minister Denounces China’s Militarization

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has lately been taking great pains not to upset China as he seeks to re-orient Philippine foreign policy toward Beijing. Just last week, Manila announced that it would defer plans to upgrade its own features in the South China Sea in a sign of good will toward China.

The Philippines’ Defense Minister, however, is sounding a much harsher line on Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea. Reuters:

China’s recent installation of weapons on artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea was “very troubling”, the Philippines’ defense minister said on Tuesday, after Manila quietly protested against Beijing’s activities.

The Philippine foreign ministry sent a note verbale to the Chinese embassy last month after confirming a report from the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies about China’s arms buildup in the Spratlys.

“The actions of China in militarizing those disputed features are very troubling,” Delfin Lorenzana said in a statement.

“They do not square with the Chinese government’s rhetoric that its purpose is peaceful and friendly.”

Do Lorenzana’s words signify a rift within Manila’s top leadership? They certainly contradict Duterte, who has said he has no concerns about Chinese militarization. Whether intentionally or not, Lorenzana’s latest comment fits into a well-established pattern of the defense minister downplaying, backtracking, or contradicting Duterte’s outspoken foreign policy preferences.

In October, for instance, Lorenzana did damage control on Duterte’s threat to pull out of security arrangements with the United States, later claiming that the president had not consulted the cabinet on his plan. In December, Lorenzana spoke out against China’s seizure of a U.S. drone in Philippine waters, saying the incident “[increased] the likelihood of miscalculation that could lead to open confrontation.” And this month, he has been downplaying the significance of military exchanges with Russia, contrasting the limited new cooperation with the more robust military agreement that exists with the U.S.

This could be a good cop/bad cop routine intended to play major powers off each other, with Duterte offering olive branches to China and Russia as his defense minister reaffirms the traditional relationship with the U.S. Or it could be a sign of genuine discord among the Philippines’ top brass, which would help to explain the mixed messages coming from Manila.

The week to come should give us more clues: Duterte is meeting today with China’s Vice Foreign Minister to discuss their bilateral relationship. The meeting comes just on the heels of a major visit to the Philippines by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, intended in part to counteract China’s growing influence. Whatever else may be said about Duterte’s unpredictable foreign policy, it is certainly keeping world leaders on their toes.

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