Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been condemned by his typical domestic and international opponents for seeking and largely attaining peace with China in spite of Beijing’s recent large scale military drills in the South China Sea. Perversely, many of the opponents of Duterte’s win-win policy of cooperation with China are suggesting that the military exercises in the South China Sea are somehow “proof” that Duterte’s policies have failed. On the contrary, the drills prove beyond any reasonable (key word) doubt that Duterte’s policies have not only succeeded but have in fact succeeded in the most important way possible.
The clear intent and purpose of China’s military drills is to demonstrate first and foremost to the United States that if the US seeks to continue its well-known provocations in the South China Sea, that the US will have to answer to one of the most powerful armed forces in history – that of China. To put it curtly, China is demonstrating to the US that if Washington’s forces in the region seek a war, China is ready, able and if necessary willing to fight it and win it.
Against such a backdrop the only sane position of the ASEAN states which have coasts on the South China Sea is to stay neutral. China and the US are nuclear superpowers whose armed forces are along with Russia’s the most advanced in world history. There is not a single south east Asian state that could realistically contribute anything to such a conflict in terms of military engagement and if a south east Asian nation allowed the armed forces of either combatant to use its territory, there is a high likelihood that part of this territory would be destroyed during the course of the conflict. This would of course be highly detrimental both to human life, infrastructure and to the economy.
Thus, the misunderstood position of neutrality that Duterte has taken regarding all conflicts over South China Sea territory is not only a wise decision, but the opposite approach would ultimately be a costly one in the short term and a suicidal one should China and the US ever escalate existing tensions into an open conflict.
Instead of singing up to someone else’s conflict, Duterte has opted to make the most of respectful relations with all willing partners. While the US and its allies remain important partners of The Philippines in some respects, the recalcitrant attitude of Washington, Ottawa and Brussels to Duterte’s administration have clearly pushed The Philippines closer to China, a country which due to its size, wealth, international influence and geographical proximity to The Philippines, should have always been an important partner of Manila.
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.
Yet in spite of these accomplishments which are historic not only for The Philippines but which serve as a future model for all of ASEAN, Duterte’s opponents continue to lambaste him as a “dictator”, or “autocratic”. Hours ago Japan’s Nikkei Asian Review published a piece warning that Duterte was becoming an “imperial president“. The article focused on the removal of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, a woman who by all means should never have been appointed to the court and who was ultimately removed not by the President or Congress but by the Court itself.
Even forgetting the scandal prone Sereno, to call a man whose position is for peace and the preservation of his nation in the pursuit of peace “imperial” is an insult to the intelligence of any open minded reader. Forgetting any ASEAN nation’s historic views of either the United States or China (including Vietnam which in recent decades has been a cautious friend of China and enemy of the US, then a total enemy of China while today being a friend of the US that sometimes hints at rapprochement with China), a policy of independence, multipolarity and win-win economic and security partnerships on a case-by-case basis is the only sound, safe and sane model for south east Asia. This model is one based on reality. A real dictator would be willing to sacrifice his nation for his ego. Duterte has done the opposite.