President Duterte has used the ASEAN summit in Singapore to clarify his South China Sea policy which is increasingly seen as a pioneering effort in the wider world, in spite of its frequent criticisms domestically – criticisms that are often rooted in a total misunderstanding of Duterte’s goals and methods on the matter.
Contrary to the conjecture from Philippine fake news media, Duterte has at no time renounced the 2016 UN arbitration ruling on contested Chinese-Philippine South China Sea claims, where the ruling ultimately went in favour of Manila’s historic position. What Duterte has acknowledged is that while China maintains its position, it would be foolish for a developing country like the Philippines which has suffered years of mismanagement, particularly under his predecessor Noynoy Aquino, to expend resources and provoke conflict over something that could be resolved to the economic benefit of the Philippine nation by pursuing a cooperative approach.
Realistically, China is the regional power with the material and economic capacity most readily available to begin an economically viable exploitation of the Sea’s multiple resources. Therefore, for the Philippines, as with most ASEAN states with claims to the South China Sea, there are two choices:
1. Alienate the world’s leading economic power and run the risk of costly and possibly deadly conflict over the Sea while also running the serious risk of falling victim to a wider Chinese-US conflict
2. Work on joint exploitation activities in the Sea with China, all the while incurring the good will of China which has the ability to pay massive dividends in the short and long terms in the form of investment into local economies and the prospect of playing a vital role in One Belt–One Road.
Duterte has used common sense, patriotism, fraternal pan-Asianism and economic foresight to make the correct decision. Duterte defined his rationale in a lengthy speech from the 26th of April where he explained that far from turning to hostility against the US, because the US is besotted with “its own problems”, it is natural to want to work with willing, ready and eager partners including China and also Russia. In respect of China, it would be impossible to develop healthy relations, not least due to extreme geopolitical distance in the 20th century between Manila and Beijing, without taking a cooperative and holistic approach to the South China Sea.
During a personal meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in Singapore, Duterte assured his counterpart that his method is all about win-win rather than confrontation or the abandonment of national principles. As recent meetings between Vietnamese and Chinese high level officials have resulted in positive statements regarding Vietnam’s historically fractious relationship with China, it is becoming clear that while Vietnam remains the most anti-Beijing party to the South China Sea dispute, Hanoi is inching closer to Duterte’s win-win model.
Speaking of Duterte’s meeting with Phúc, Philippine Presidential spokesman Harry Roque quoted the Vietnamese premier who stated
“We will learn from [Duterte’s] handling of China….President [Duterte] handled China very well”.
This is proof positive that Duterte’s model of 21st century non-alignment is serving as an inspiration among many Asian leaders for both easing historic suspicions and settling contemporary disputes.
If Vietnam, a country whose rivalry with China dates back to ancient times can begin to see the wisdom of Duterte’s approach to various regional issues of concern, including the South China Sea, then it is high time for Duterte’s often unhinged domestic rivals to realise that Duterte is not only standing up for his own country’s interests, but he is providing a template for positive win-win problem solving across multi-lateral lines. This can serve as a template not only for ASEAN-China relations but for conflicts across the globe.
While India’s Premier Modi left China without seizing the opportunities that President Xi presented him, Duterte is working diligently to make the most out of every current and possible partnership available to The Philippines. This is clearly the way forward in the 21st century. Looking to the failed past, as Duterte’s opposition are so fond of doing will bring nothing but prolonged stagnation to The Philippines. It is Duterte’s model which offers both hope for the future and tangible results in the present.