First of 2 parts
PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot away from his predecessor’s belligerent stance toward China was a tour de force in crisis management, a bold move that stopped what would have been the country’s catastrophic conflict with the Asian superpower — with the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations most likely abandoning us — the latter, who are really our competitors, with hidden glee even.
It was also a stroke of genius in diplomacy in that Duterte’s independent foreign policy extracted benefits for the Philippines not only from China but also the US as the two rival superpowers scrambled to compete for the country’s support.
I am not presenting my opinion or analysis here — although I have drawn similar conclusions in many of my past columns. I am merely presenting the conclusions of two scholars who studied comprehensively the country’s foreign relations with China through the Aquino years to the present, seeing through the propaganda of the pro-American former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario and former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio.
The first study is by Peter Kreuzer, titled “Dealing with China in the South China Sea” published as Report 3/2018 by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, a highly respected think tank and the largest in Germany. It was established in 1970 and focuses on research on international and internal conflicts. Kreuzer is a PhD and a senior researcher at the institute. Kreuzer explains why the arbitration suit has merely provoked the Asian superpower to harden its stance in the South China Sea disputes.
Kreuzer is hardly a fan of Duterte. Three of his first studies published by the institute were extremely critical of the alleged extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s watch, and in a December 2016 piece concluded that he was on his way to become “Marcos 2.0.”
The second study which I will report on Friday is by Mark Bryan Manantan, a a research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. Manantan’s study focuses on how Duterte’s deft foreign policy got both China and the US to ramp up their support for the Philippines.
“It was clearly unsuccessful, if the aim was either to stop Chinese assertiveness, lessen the threat of escalation or get closer to resolving the conflict. It was also highly problematic insofar as it undermined one of the scarcest resources in this complex conflict: mutual trust. While perfectly legal, the Philippine strategy should be understood as an act of lawfare, insofar as it breached the informal agreement of regional claimants not to turn to external mechanisms of conflict resolution as well as a normative precondition of arbitration as a consensual step of competing claimants.” This term lawfare denotes “the strategy of using — or misusing — law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.” (Dunlap 2008:146)
Carpio, who has been fond of advocating the use of “lawfare” against China, should study what the term means internationally. According to Kruezer, “this term lawfare denotes the strategy of using — or misusing — law as a substitute for traditional military means to achieve an operational objective.”
“Had the Aquino government remained in office, the chances of further escalation would have been substantial. China would most probably have further advanced its strategy of establishing new facts on the ground in the form of artificial islands that have huge military airports and harbors, and simultaneously aggressively denied the Philippines access to vast stretches of the sea it claimed for itself,” Kreuzer wrote.
“The Aquino strategy did not prevent China from further asserting its claims in the South China Sea, where it established a number of huge artificial islands from 2014 onwards, several of which have been equipped with airports and harbors that are able to accommodate modern fighter jets, bombers and warships. Further, there was no feasible option for the Philippines to enforce the ruling without running the risk of militarizing the dispute. Finally, the Philippines seemed to have lost out economically due to its hardline stance during the years of confrontation.”
Kreuzer pointed out that with Aquino’s belligerent stance, “China bypassed the Philippines in its One Belt One Road Initiative. This is a comprehensive development strategy aimed at enhancing international trade through huge infrastructure investments that link China to Europe. It covers more than 60 countries, equivalent to more than 60 percent of world population and 40 percent of global GDP.”
The arbitral award (which Aquino and his foreign secretary del Rosario claimed was a victory for the country — RT) hardly hurt China. “To China the immediate negative repercussions with respect to bilateral relations were negligible. With the establishment of artificial islands it had clearly strengthened its position on the ground to an unprecedented extent.” With harbors and airports on the artificial islands, China “substantially expanded its ability to monitor and project power throughout the South China Sea.”
Kreuzer narrated: “Yet, two weeks before the arbitral award was handed down, the new Philippine President Duterte, who immediately shifted course and offered to mend fences with China, was inaugurated. His offer to ignore the award for the time being enabled China to respond in kind without loss of face or admission of defeat.”
“Since then, the all but broken down bilateral communication channels have been re-established from the top-level to track-two, economic relations have intensified, China has become an important partner and source of loans for the Philippine development program focused on infrastructure, the situation on the ground in the contested areas has eased significantly and guarded optimism with respect to the eventual peacefulness of China’s rise has returned to the region.”
Keuzer pointed out though that Duterte’s policy wasn’t new, and had been that of President Arroyo: “Philippine policy under Duterte has been an open invitation to return to and extend past practices of embedding conflicts in a broader framework of cooperation as was the case during the first decade of the new millennium.”
The study pointed out that there are two valuable lessons the community of nations should learn from the Philippines’ contrasting policies towards China under Aquino and Duterte.
First, “premature and unilateral efforts at conflict resolution through the application of legal instruments may actually increase the opponent’s resistance and thereby escalate conflict dynamics. This holds all the more true the more the invocation of international arbitration (or other legal instruments) can be perceived as a strategic move aimed at winning a contest through law that cannot be won otherwise. Under such circumstances, heightened resistance is to be expected from the opposing party as it perceives the other’s move as lawfare or the use of law as a weapon of war.”
“The second lesson is that China’s behavior can be influenced through strategies that respond in a positive way to its core needs and predicaments and thus provide incentives for the lessening of asserting power unilaterally.”
Kreuzer explained: “The arbitration award had not prevented China from vastly extending its presence and clout in the areas claimed by the Philippines. In addition, continuing the course at that juncture threatened the Philippines with huge economic costs. The previous years showed how the country had seemingly been left out of the Chinese Belt and Road vision and plans.
It was clear that China, one of the most important external trade partners of the Philippines, could resort to economic coercion. This might easily throttle the Philippine economy. Neither exports to the United States nor to Japan could easily balance prospective losses in the case of Chinese sanctions.
Finally, the United States consistently shied away from committing itself to the defense of the non-metropolitan areas of the Philippines. Thus, in the final analysis there was a clear danger that the Philippines would have to confront China on its own, if the latter chose to further escalate the conflict on the ground.”
In contrast to Aquino and del Rosario who incessantly claimed that the world respected the Philippines ‘for standing up to a bully”, “the Duterte administration focused not on international recognition and respect, but on immediate benefits which it calculated in the currency of economic profit and more comfortable bilateral relations. It then took the risk of public signaling its new interpretation of the current situation as a costly dead end and also proposed resetting relations. In many respects this meant backtracking to the early years of the new millennium, i.e., ignoring the arbitration ruling for the time being, shelving the conflict, and focusing on symbolic politics and economic cooperation.”
What Kreuzer however missed in his analysis is why Aquino and del Rosario swiftly took such a belligerent stance against China. The answer as I have explained in previous columns could be titled “Oligarchic power in the Philippines.” Read among others my columns archived in rigobertotiglao.com: column: “Revealed: The crux of our SCS dispute — natural gas” (TMT, Oct. 20, 2020), and “Two oligarchs triggered our quarrel with China” (July 22, 2020).
On Friday: How Duterte plays China and the US