Today’s Digital Edition of South China Morning Post publishes my lengthy piece on President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China. I’d like to thank for granting me interviews Dr. Alfred McCoy, Prof. Randolph David, Gen. Victor Corpus and the others who gave a briefing at Wilson Lee Flores’ Kamuning Bakery. They include Herman Tiu Laurel, Ado Paglinawan, former Senator Francisco Tatad, Rod Kapunan and George Siy. They gave a different perspective to the South China Sea issue.
The South China Sea issue is one topic that is close to the bone.
Below is my analysis of the issue.
DUTERTE PLAYS A DANGEROUS GAME IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA
By Raissa Robles
27 FEB 2017
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Rodrigo Duterte’s family home in Davao City last month, it was more than just the shared durian that suggested the Philippine president’s radical new “independent foreign policy” was bearing fruit.
While the pair indulged in a day of dressed-down diplomacy – Abe in a white short-sleeved polo shirt, Duterte in an untucked flannel shirt and leather shoes with no socks – and photo opportunities that included the Japanese leader visiting Duterte’s bedroom and naming a rare Philippine eagle “Sakura” (in reference to Japan’s fabled cherry blossom), observers were quick to assign deeper geopolitical significance to what was otherwise a laid-back affair.
The headline act of that day was Abe’s parting gift – a pledge of a US$9 billion aid package and an offer to help Duterte in his trademark war on drugs and terror.
Most analysts saw this as a reflection of Abe’s determination to match recent largesse from China, which in October pledged US$15 billion in investment and in January agreed to cooperate on 30 projects worth US$3.7 billion. To Duterte supporters, it was proof that his diplomatic pivot away from the United States and into the arms of China and Russia was starting to pay off.
But if Duterte’s pivot – which many see as an effort to play the Philippines’ rival suitors off against each other – has been reaping some early dividends, some experts warn it has the potential not only to undermine US hegemony in the region, but jeopardise the Philippines’ control of its natural resources and even threaten Duterte’s own grip on power.
Those suggestions gained credence this week when the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay spelled out for the first time the Duterte government’s policy on the South China Sea, telling lawmakers: “My position, which is the official position, is that the disputed part of the South China Sea has never belonged to anyone.”
That came as a marked departure from the country’s previous stance, which saw it take its long-standing dispute against Chinese territorial claims in the sea to an international arbitration court in The Hague. The court ruled in the Philippines’ favour in July and Duterte’s apparent willingness to forgo that advantage has lent weight to suggestions he may be willing to sideline sovereignty claims in return for influence with China.
It’s a dangerous game that [Duterte’s] playing,” said American historian Alfred McCoy, who believes that in accommodating China in the South China Sea, the Philippines is in danger of becoming a pawn in a two-pronged strategy by China to deal a “crippling blow to US global power”.
He argues in a new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, that China is trying to break out of “US lines of encirclement” that enable Washington to “dominate both ends of the Eurasian land mass”. These lines include its alliance with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries in the West and its Pacific alliances in the East that have let it set up bases in countries including Japan, South Korea and, in particular, the Philippines.
One prong of China’s strategy, according to McCoy, is to become the epicentre of a vast Eurasian continental market through efforts such as the “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative to link economies through infrastructure. The other prong is to break US encirclement with bases on man-made islands in the South China Sea and a US$200 billion Port of Gwadar in Pakistan.
McCoy said that Duterte risked a military coup if he traded financial support from China for silence over Beijing’s build-up of armed forces in the strategically located waterway through which a third of the world’s shipping passes. “There’s a possibility that if [Duterte] moves too far to China,[and] he’s giving away the Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea, this could produce a very strong nationalist reaction among the ranks of the military,” he said, noting that Philippine military officers had long enjoyed close relations with their American counterparts. “That’s one of the very real threats that he faces. He’s got to be very skilful in the way that he handles the armed forces.”
Even without a coup, McCoy said that in backing away from the arbitration court’s decision the Philippines would be at risk of losing a third of its maritime territory, located in “the richest fishing ground in the world” with a vast potential of hydrocarbon deposits. “And what would they get for it? Low cost loans which would have to be repaid. It doesn’t strike me as a great bargain so far,” he said.
With both China and the US seeing their relationships with the Philippines as key to their ambitions in the South China Sea, Duterte has a powerful bargaining chip, one he has shown every intention of using since the arbitration court’s ruling.
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