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Whitsun Reef: Duterte’s failed China policy

By: Richard Heydarian - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | April 20,2021 - 08:30 AM

As long as you remain meek and humble,” claimed President Duterte shortly after one of his numerous meetings with China’s leaders, “[you] will have mercy [from China].”

The former-mayor-turned-president has stood by his side of that bargain. He has downplayed not only the Philippines’ legitimate and lawful claims in the West Philippine Sea, but also repeatedly denigrated the historic arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which reaffirmed our country’s claims in accordance with prevailing international law.

At one point, the former mayor even offered China “co-ownership” of vast energy resources, potentially worth tens of billions of dollars, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. And when a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed and almost drowned 22 Filipino fishermen in the Reed Bank area, the President dismissed the whole crisis as “a little maritime accident,” eerily parroting the official position of the Chinese foreign ministry.

To Beijing’s relish, President Duterte simply claimed, with unfathomable insouciance, that he is “inutile” and “cannot do anything” about China’s intrusion into our waters. Apparently, no more jet ski ride to the West Philippine Sea.

But in exchange for such unprecedented demonstration of strategic meekness, unparalleled even by regional standards, has the former mayor secured China’s “mercy”?

If there is one thing the month-long standoff over the Julian Felipe Reef, also known as Whitsun Reef, demonstrates, it’s that meekness doesn’t pay in geopolitics. Let’s run the numbers.

Over the past five years under Mr. Duterte’s watch, China has accelerated not only the reclamation but also the militarization of Philippine-claimed land features in the South China Sea.

To make matters worse, China has now entered a new phase in its South China Sea strategy, relying on the deployment of an armada of paramilitary forces (backed by the Chinese coast guard and navy) to intimidate, swarm, and encircle rival claimant states such as the Philippines. Since 2019, this “militiazation” strategy has been in place, but it reached its zenith during the recent swarming of the Whitsun Reef and other land features under Philippine control.

Meanwhile, not a single Chinese big-ticket infrastructure project has kicked off in the Philippines despite the promise of $24 billion in investments back in 2016. This should have come as no surprise. In my first article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer almost exactly three years ago, I warned of the “Chinese chimera,” whereby “Beijing extracts major geopolitical concessions from Mr. Duterte based on (false) promises of large-scale investments that never come true.”

And lest we forget, China delivered vaccines much earlier not only to our neighbors such as Indonesia, but also to relatively small nations such as Senegal and Serbia, which tells us a lot about how effective Mr. Duterte’s charm offensive toward Beijing has been.

There are three interrelated strategic lessons that we should draw from Mr. Duterte’s fruitless China strategy. First of all, do not forward-deploy concessions or take a self-defeating stance, especially when dealing with astute superpowers. Contrary to the common anti-China propaganda, the Asian powerhouse is not a monster or a monolithic power. Instead, China’s leadership can be as flexible and opportunistic as any rising superpower. And as patriots, China’s leaders will always prioritize their own people and national interest.

That brings us to the second strategic lesson. History shows that the Asian powerhouse respects strength and conviction, precisely the two elements that have guided the China policy of our dignified and patriotic neighbors such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Mind you, when former president Benigno Aquino III took Beijing to international court, neither did China invade the Philippines nor sink or swarm our islands in the West Philippine Sea. When you demonstrate strength of conviction, the bully blinks.

And finally, alliances may not be perfect, but they matter. Throughout the past week or so, the Biden administration has not only rhetorically reassured the Philippines about its alliance commitments, but has also deployed massive warships to the region, including the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, the USS John S. McCain and USS Mustin destroyers, as well as Virginia-class attack submarine USS Illinois.

Perhaps the best way to secure China’s “mercy” is to be a bit less “meek,” and instead stand your ground as a dignified leader of a sovereign nation.

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