On Friday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said President Xi Jinping threatened war if Duterte started developing Philippine oil and gas resources in the South China Sea. The Philippines has every right to do so, per the award of an international arbitral tribunal in the Hague last year. After describing Xi’s threat, Duterte told his Philippine military audience, “What more could I say?” I sympathize. The Philippines is a much smaller country militarily, economically, and in diplomatic power, than is China. As Duterte points out, war with China would be a “massacre and it will destroy everything,” starting in Palawan, a long Philippine island bordering the South China Sea.
A US air force personnel looks at a Philippine flag patch he exchanged with his Philippine counterpart after the closing ceremony of the annual joint US-Philippines military exercise in Manila on May 19, 2017. The Philippines and the United States launched annual military exercises on May 8 but the longtime allies scaled them down which focuses only on counter-terrorism and disaster relief in line with President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to China and Russia. Credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
But let’s consider a few options that show this threat of war for what it is: a baseless scare tactic. First, Duterte could hang tough and seek a stronger stance on the issue by the U.S., which is a Philippine ally per the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. In his defense, Duterte and his predecessor Benigno Aquino may already have sought such help from the U.S. and gotten turned down or dissuaded. That would be a stain on U.S. honor. But redoubling his efforts, for example reaching out to Trump and bringing the threat before the United Nations General Assembly, is constitutionally required according to Philippine Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. 
To whomever one ascribes blame, the U.S.-Philippine alliance failed to defend the Philippine EEZ when China occupied Mischief Reef in 1995, and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. That is a fact. Every day that China continues its occupation, the alliance fails anew. 
The U.S. and Philippines together, could easily have defended these locations. The Philippines tried briefly at the Scarborough standoff of 2012, but U.S. ships did not join, and then the U.S. and China brokered a deal in which the Philippines backed off, and China stayed. Why didn’t the U.S. and Philippines return in force when they realized they had been tricked? Given that we all stayed home, we cannot say that China’s willingness to fight has been tested at Scarborough.
When I spoke to several Chinese foreign ministry officials a couple years ago, they said they would not fight back if the U.S. and Philippines removed them from Scarborough by force. It was a startling admission, one gotten when I surprised them with the question. But I bet it is true, even today. If China attacked Philippine military forces, or the island of Palawan, the U.S. would come to the aid of the Philippines militarily, and China knows this. That would be militarily and economically damaging, if not catastrophic, to both countries. Therefore a Chinese war against the Philippines is unlikely to happen as long as the alliance with the U.S. is healthy. President Duterte could make this clear to the public in both nations by visiting the White House, and inviting Trump to Malacañang Palace, rather than amplify China’s scare tactics.
Vietnamese protesters hold up posters while shouting anti-China slogans in front of the Chinese embassy in Hanoi on July 8, 2012. Hundreds of people staged the anti-China protest, the second one in a week, after the China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced last month that nine offshore blocks were available for exploration, and said it was seeking bids from foreign companies. Vietnam contends that the blocks 'lie entirely within Vietnam's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.' Credit: HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/GettyImages
More likely than war would be Chinese attempts to interdict Philippine commercial vessels trying to drill for oil, and offering to sell Philippine oil rights. China did this to Vietnam in 2012. When Vietnam tried to tow sonar in its EEZ, looking for oil and gas, a Chinese boat ran over the cables and cut them. Also in 2012, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) tried to auction blocks for oil exploration that were within Vietnam's EEZ. The Philippines could protect its oil exploration and drilling with its own Coast Guard, perhaps accompanied by U.S., European and Japanese Coast Guard.

This would require improved relations with these countries, which is possible. According to U.S. administration officials, Trump wants to help the Philippines be a bulwark against Chinese expansionism in Asia. But President Duterte cold-shouldered President Trump’s invitation to the White House. Meanwhile he told an audience of Beijing business executives, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.” 
Why did Duterte alienate the U.S. ($18 trillion nominal GDP) and E.U. ($20 trillion GDP) in favor of China ($11 trillion GDP)? Because of promises of $24 billion in investments and loans that will most likely primarily benefit Chinese companies, and that have not yet materialized? The Philippines should use its precious resources, whether loans or taxes, to develop its own industrial and technological capacity, not that of foreign companies. The Philippines is a democracy with a U.S. defense treaty. China is a military competitor and is in the process of illegallyoccupying Philippine territory. The Philippines has every reason to court the U.S. for protection, and to expect that such protection be afforded.
It is hard to make sense of the U.S.-Philippine alliance failure without resorting to theories of Chinese economic influence in both Philippineand U.S. politics. It is clear that Duterte is seeking billions in loans from China. It is possible that Duterte’s designees, whether friends, family, or political supporters, could stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars from these deals, especially if they are involved in contracting or as middlemen between the Philippine government and the Chinese companies who would likely do most of the work. The Trump family is also making money in China, including through trademarks and possible Chinese real estate investment in the New York area. Is it possible that China’s willingness to provide economic benefit to political leaders in the U.S. and the Philippines has made these political leaders soft on China? I think so. And I think that may be why the U.S. and Philippines never did much about China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. 
This problem predates Trump and Duterte, which suggests that we need stronger laws to make it impossible for politicians, and by extension their friends, family, and political supporters, from doing business with politically, economically, and militarily aggressive countries like China. Not forbidding such business opens our democracies to authoritarian political influence. As Trump rightly notes, people in the U.S. need the Philippines as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism. Duterte rightly notes that the Philippines, alone, would be destroyed in a war against China. People in the Philippines need the U.S. for its military power. We need each other. Voters in both countries, and in other democracies, must demand that their political leaders stick together and defend the line that divides democracy from autocracy wherever it comes under threat.
Please follow me on Twitter @anderscorr, or contact me at corr@canalyt.com.