By Vann Marlo M. Villegas and Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters
PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte should abandon his friendly stance toward China because the tide has turned, political analysts said at the weekend.
“We miss the point if we just try to look at Duterte’s tortured language and contradictory statement,” said Richard H. Heydarian, a professorial chairholder on geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
“The Philippines does not have a coherent foreign policy when it comes to dealing with China,” he said by telephone. “It’s interesting to see why Duterte is so tortured in terms of his language; it’s precisely because he realizes that the tide is turning against his China policy.”
Mr. Duterte last week said he would not withdraw navy and coast guard vessels patrolling the South China Sea, which China claims in almost its entirety, even as he reiterated his desire for the Philippines to maintain friendly ties with its “good friend.”
The President’s order for continued patrols stood in contrast with his insistence that standing up for rights would risk war against China, which had been proven “to be a false choice,” said Jay L. Batongbacal, who heads the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
“He can still pursue further relations with China, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of our rights and interest in the West Philippine Sea,” he said in a telephone interview, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone. “It doesn’t have to be a choice between one or the other.”
The presidential palace on Sunday said the Philippines must pursue its claims, manage and resolve disputes through peaceful and legal means under international law.
“All of these means start and end with negotiation,” presidential spokesman Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said in a statement. “Even when countries implement decisions under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, they must negotiate.”
“That is why the President’s policy has been careful, calculated, calibrated. He has never renounced our claims and entitlements, and in fact he and his administration has asserted them in bilateral talks with China and in multilateral fora like the United Nations.”
Mr. Duterte has always struck a calmer tone toward its neighbor, which he considers to be central to his government’s ambitious infrastructure, trade and investment plans.
He seems to be trying to win both China’s side and public approval, said Dennis C. Coronacion, who heads the University of Santo Tomas Political Science department.
“He wants China to continue to trust him,” he said. “At the same time, he wants to reassure the Filipino public that he is protecting our territorial integrity.”
Mr. Heydarian said the Philippines lacks a coherent foreign policy on China. “Without a question, Whitsun Reef, as in other major crises in the foreign policy over the past few years, has exposed fault lines within the administration’s response.”
Mr. Duterte has always been friendly with China so his pivot there is not undermined by its island-building activities in the South China Sea, but his top Cabinet members are taking a stronger stance, the analyst said.
The President’s “appeasement policy” to moderate Chinese behavior is not working, said Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at the De La Salle University.
“China couldn’t care less about the concessions that we offer them. China’s goal is simply subjugation. So Duterte is caught in a dilemma,” he said by telephone. Mr. Duterte could not challenge China “because that will mean he has been wrong all this time; he could not accept it.”
Mr. Heydarian said China has yet to deliver its infrastructure promise even as its militarization in the South China Sea worsened under Mr. Duterte’s administration.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Duterte’s ‘meekness policy’ toward China has produced any kind of tangible concessions in favor of the Philippines,” he said, adding that the incident at Whitsun Reef had undermined his position and credibility.
The Philippines has fired off several diplomatic protests against China after authorities spotted a swarm of Chinese vessels, including six war ships within its waters in the South China Sea.
A Philippine task force said more than 200 Chinese ships were scattered in waters within its exclusive economic zone. About 15 vessels either manned by Chinese militia, the People’s Liberation Army Navy or Chinese Coast Guard had also been spotted at Scarborough Shoal.
Meanwhile, about 240 Chinese vessels that China claims are ordinary fishing vessels have spread out to a wider area in the South China Sea, the agency said. The ships allegedly manned by Chinese maritime forces were scattered across the Spratlys, about 175 nautical miles west of Palawan province, it added.
Meanwhile, Filipino marine scientists asked the government to stop downplaying the importance of the South China Sea as a major fishing ground for the Philippines.
In a statement, the scientists said about 55% of global marine fishing vessels operate in the waterway and as much as a fifth of annual global marine fish catch worth at least $21.8 billion comes from the area.
A third of Philippine fish catch comes from the Spratly Islands alone, they pointed out. The scientists said the whole shoal can provide as many as 91,000 metric tons (MT) of fish yearly, which can supply the fish needs of as many as 2.3 million Filipinos a year.
They added that the Scarborough Shoal alone can produce as many as 31 MT of fish per square kilometer of coral reef area yearly.
“These reefs show strong ecological connections with reefs near mainland Palawan and are potential sources of fish larvae to these reefs and those as far as the Sulu and Celebes Seas,” they said.
Given that 30% of Filipinos’ total protein intake and 70% of their animal protein intake comes from fish, “it is important that our fishers have continued access to the producing fishing grounds in the West Philippine Sea,” the scientists said.
The area also provides employment to about 1.8 million people, mostly from the small-scale fishing sector.
Mr. Duterte had said he would not quarrel with China over fish since there is not enough in the area. His spokesman earlier said the area is described in the map as “dangerous ground” since it is rocky.
But the marine experts said the area is poorly mapped and the name only serves as a warning to seafarers.
“Besides being host to rich marine biodiversity, coral reefs are considered to be one of the most productive marine ecosystems,” they said. “Perceiving coral reefs as rocks is a common misconception.”