Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a press conference in Davao City, in southern island of Mindanao on May 26, 2016. Explosive incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has launched a series of obscenity-filled attacks on the Catholic Church, branding local bishops corrupt ‘sons of whores’ who are to be blamed for the nation’s fast-growing population. (Photo MANMAN DEJETO/AFP/Getty Images)
Duterte, the tough (often foul) talking former mayor of Davao City, one of the Philippines’ safest cities thanks to his stiff armed almost vigilante 21-year rule, has said that he would like to sit down at the table with China and hash things out.
Of course he is referring to China’s 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, clearly within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), after a brief standoff between Chinese maritime vessels and a lone Philippine naval vessel, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, an antiquated and former U.S. Coast Guard cutter.
Chinese media quickly said that it was a little naive of the new Philippine President-elect to think that the row could be worked out so easily.
Duterte also said this week that he expects Beijing to abide by the ruling of the United Nations tribunal on the arbitration case lodged by the Philippines against China’s nine-dash line claim over the entire South China Sea.
The President-elect said that he will be working closely with China, in particular in building railways to ease commuters’ woes, but this does not mean his administration will abandon its maritime claims. “Just because you are building me a railway doesn’t mean I’m abandoning Scarborough Shoal,” he said.
“I told you, that [Scarborough Shoal] is ours, you have no right to be there in our EEZ. Whether you believe it or not, [that’s] fine by me, but that will be the predicate of any further discussions about those territories of ours.”

However, news broke yesterday that Chinese President Xi Jinping told Duterte that he hopes to get relations with the Philippines back on track. According to China’s foreign Ministry, the Chinese president sent a message to Duterte late on Monday congratulating him on his formal election victory, and said the two countries had a long history of friendly exchanges and a deep traditional friendship.
“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.
Geopolitical window dressing
However, all of this is mere geopolitical window dressing to cover the obvious. China has no intent to give into Duterte’s assertions over Manila’s loss of Scarborough Shoal or for that matter to any negative ruling from The Hague over the Philippines’ case against China. The court is expected to deliver a ruling within the next month or two and it will likely rule, at least in part, for the Philippines.
The best that the Philippines can hope for is that a positive Hague ruling will continue to solidify world public opinion against Beijing’s aggressive land grabbing and artificial island building in the South China Sea. Manila can also hope that China cares enough to save face, if the international court rules in Manila’s favor, which could mean economic overtures toward the Philippines.
China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, an historically unprecedented claim. The U.S. in the name of freedom of navigation is challenging these claims with both naval voyages and military flights nearby Beijing's claims in the disputed wateway.
China claims more than 80% of the South China Sea, an historically unprecedented claim. It seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012 from the Philippines after a standoff between a Philippine naval vessel and Chinese maritime ships. Scarborough Shoal is within the UN mandated 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, which China doesn’t recognize.
Beijing is likely thinking of increased trade and a plethora of other incentives for the Philippines – something it has offered other countries in the past, particularly countries in Africa where Beijing has cut major deals including generous grants to build roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and other infrastructure. Call it China’s checkbook diplomacy, the same thing the U.S., the U.K. and other Western powers have been guilty of in the past.
While it will take wisdom for the fledgling new Philippine president to be able to handle such a changing political landscape with China, the harsh reality is that a the end of the day, China will continue its artificial island building in the South China Sea, along with building runways capable of handling military aircraft and the establishment of other military assets. Moreover, the Philippines will have little choice but to accept this fact, without or without increased economic trade, incentives and friendly gestures from Mr. Xi.