Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has given a speech condemning piracy in the seas of South East Asia. Speaking in India where ASEAN heads of state and government have gathered for Republic Day, Duterte is quoted as saying, “I go for a hardline policy. Blow them up in the high seas”.
But the key element of the statement came when he said,
“We’ll just have to call China to come in and blow them off just like Somalia”.
Saying the ‘C word’ in India
At a time when India is attempting to pull South East Asia firmly into its anti-Chinese orbit, Duterte somewhat spoiled the party meant to show off India’s geo-political wares, by implying that New Delhi’s arch rival is the country best suited to helping fight piracy from the Sulu and Celebes seas to the Strait of Malacca. Thus, in one seemingly off-the-cuff comment, Duterte helped to clearly define China’s position as one of a security guarantor for South East Asia while in the heart of India. Duterte furthermore left his hosts without much of an opportunity to respond, as fighting piracy is theoretically transcendent in respect of geo-political alignments, even though the reality of the issue is deeply geo-strategic.
Expanding China’s ASEAN presence beyond the South China Sea
The United States continues to infuriate China in the form of frequent violations of Chinese maritime sovereignty throughout the seas of the Asia-Pacific, most notably in the South China Sea. The US which disputes China’s sovereign claims, has justified its actions based on a doctrine called “freedom of Navigation”, which itself is justified by American claims that only its Navy can secure the seas from piracy. As is widely known, the presence of US ships in the Strait of Malacca have long been viewed as a direct attempt to clog Chinese shipping routes to the Indian Ocean.
In calling for China to take charge against South East Asian pirates in a manner similar to that which China is increasingly taking in India Ocean off the Horn of Africa, Duterte is laying down the gauntlet and saying that as the President of state which itself is a series of heavily exposed islands, he will look to the Chinese superpower rather than the American superpower to secure the safety of the waters around his country and those of Philippines’ ASEAN partners.
All at once, Duterte has both put a damper on India’s South East Asian ambitions while also challenging the efficacy of America’s “freedom of navigation”.
While Duterte is clearly a man of conviction and passion, he is also a deeply geo-political aware statesman. While happy to hear what his Indian hosts have to say, Duterte wants to make it clear to China, that Manila’s historic rapprochement with Beijing is a genuine fact of official long-term policy. Furthermore, as India is now the most populous US ally in Asia, Duterte is also sending a message to the US who will be watching the ASEAN meeting in India very carefully, that Philippines is not a bout to jump into a crypto-American alliance being led from New Delhi rather than Washington.