The news that China may be preparing to build on Scarborough Shoal may have alarmed defense planners in Manila and Washington, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte greeted the news with a fatalistic shrug. Yahoo News:
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday he could not stop China from building on a disputed shoal near his country’s west coast because it was too powerful. […]
“We cannot stop China from doing (these) things,” Duterte told journalists when asked about the reports.
“What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can’t. We will lose all our military and policemen tomorrow and we (will be) a destroyed nation,” he told a press conference before departing for a visit to Myanmar.
Duterte said he would tell the Chinese: “Just keep it (the waters) open and do not interfere with our coast guard.”
At the same press conference, Duterte also dismissed fears about Chinese incursions near Benham Rise, an underwater structure east of the Philippine island of Luzon. Last week, the Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned of Chinese activity there and promised to increase naval patrols to assert Manila’s sovereignty—but Duterte, by contrast, has dismissed such concerns as “nit-picking.”
It is important to note that this is not the first time that Duterte and Lorenzana have publicly contradicted each other; Duterte has consistently taken a more sanguine view of China than his defense secretary. Despite the public disagreement, though, the more hawkish line of the Philippines’ top brass has prevailed more often than not. Duterte’s most dramatic threats—to scrap military agreements with the United States and kick out American soldiers, for instance—have not come to pass, and leaders at the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have consistently lodged formal protests with Beijing over its militarization of the South China Sea.
Some of this is clearly due to internal dynamics, but it also reflects the general sense of uncertainty that the election of Donald Trump has cast across most of the world. Much in Asia will depend on where the United States and China end up after Xi visits Mar e Lago next month; the region’s players will want to wait to commit to anything until the Trump Administration has more fully played its hand.