- The word war between Philippine and Chinese officials will not result in any immediate increase in risk from the Philippine side.
- However, the main unknown — and the key variable — is whether the developments of the past two weeks may be signaling a policy gap between President Rodrigo Duterte and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana regarding the current dispute.
- If the defense establishment were to take a firmer stance internally, then Duterte may eventually be forced to shift his government’s position on territorial issues between the two countries.
The possibility of some disagreement between Duterte and Lorenzana on how to tackle the presence of Chinese ships in a disputed reef is the key domestic unknown in how the rare word war between the two governments might eventually change Manila’s policy on disputed waters.
Our baseline scenario remains that Duterte’s weak grasp of foreign policy and aversion to any confrontation with Beijing remains a significant constraint in the country’s ability to formulate a firmer response to China’s actions in the South China Sea. Duterte frames many policy issues in binary terms, which makes it easy for him to take a popular and polarizing stance that caters to his political base but works against nuanced policymaking.
However, events of the past few weeks argue against quickly and casually dismissing the possibility of daylight coming between Lorenzana and Duterte (although any determination will take time because Duterte has not been seen for days and Lorenzana tested positive for Covid-19). This may eventually cause Duterte to agree to a gradual but noticeable change in Manila’s China policy. Any policy shift would still take time to evolve — and any increase in risk will be similarly gradual — but it would mark a significant break from the Philippines’ China policy under Duterte and the internal dynamics of the policymaking process.
A brief background
The current dispute started in mid-March when a government task force released pictures of more than 200 Chinese ships — the so-called maritime militia — anchored together at Whitsun reef. Called Juan Felipe by the Philippines and Niu’e Jiao by China, Manila claims the reef to be within its exclusive economic zone while Beijing contends that it is part of its broader claim over the Spratleys/Nansha islands.
On 22 March, Defense Lorenzana called the ships’ presence a “clear provocation,” and asked that the Chinese withdraw them, with the foreign ministry simultaneously filing a diplomatic protest. China said that the vessels were only taking shelter from bad weather; the presidential spokesperson also said Duterte had already spoken to the Chinese ambassador and that the vessels would depart when conditions improve.
On 4 April, Lorenzana said he was “no fool,” saying that the weather had been good and that the 44 vessels remaining in the area should have departed already. The other Chinese vessels have moved to other reefs, including those already fortified by China. The Chinese embassy described Lorenzana’s statements as “unprofessional” and “perplexing,” and that they would further “fan irrational emotions.” The Philippine foreign ministry retorted that China was propounding “blatant falsehoods.” Manila has countered with threats of more serious diplomatic action, although Duterte has said any disputes would be resolved peacefully. Manila also filed another diplomatic protest on 7 April.
The relationship between Duterte and the military and why it matters
As president, Duterte has always craved the military’s acceptance. Having been a mayor in a southern city far from the capital for most of his political career, he had little opportunity to build ties with senior military officers, except those who had served in his area. During his first two years as president, he would often rhetorically ask the military to remove him if he no longer deserved their trust — a dare that played to his image as an outsider, but which also likely revealed his insecurities with the organization. Duterte bought off the armed forces’ discomfort with his China policy and his weak personal relationship with the institution and key military leaders through patronage, either with the budget or promotions. Over the years he has promoted several retired generals to key cabinet positions. He has also supported a more aggressive government posture against communist rebels, which is a key political achievement for the armed forces.
This evolving patronage relationship, combined with Duterte’s popularity, worked against the defense establishment’s ability to influence broader China policy. After all, this is not the first time that Lorenzana has criticized Chinese actions in the South China Sea, but his previous complaints would often quickly slip into the shadows, unsupported by the president’s key officials.
In contrast, and what is generating speculation that this time might be different, is that the back and forth between Chinese officials has been simmering since mid-March (even though most international media took note of it only during the past week), signaling possibly greater resolve on the part of Lorenzana, and with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin also taking on his Chinese counterparts.
A change in domestic policy
One possibility is that Duterte’s status as the military’s patron is declining in value as he nears the end of his term. Lorenzana’s persistence in challenging China on the issue may indicate that the defense establishment is no longer as willing to toe the line on presidential policy that it has long disagreed with, but to which it has suppressed its reaction. After all, with elections only a year away, political calculations may be changing — Lorenzana could be eyeing the Senate next year and defense and military officials may finally need or want to assuage the discomfort within their organizations at Duterte’s policies on the territorial dispute.
If there were to be any change, the Philippines would want to avoid being seen as provoking a Chinese response and will therefore avoid any major increase in naval or coastguard assets in the disputed waters, although it may increase symbolic patrolling. It is also unlikely to send more fishing boats into the area because it has limited ability to protect them. Therefore, Manila’s initial actions will be to needle Beijing on its legal victory in The Hague in 2016. More importantly, Duterte could signal greater cooperation and coordination with the United States on security issues — all of which are likely to be a slow burn. Even then, they would be seen locally in the Philippines as a major reversal of Duterte’s foreign policy of the past few years.