BY DAVID TWEED AND NORMAN P AQUINO SEPTEMBER 16 2016, 05:48
Just when some of China’s neighbours were seeking to curtail its expansionism, along came Rodrigo Duterte.
In less than three months on the job, the 71-year-old Philippines leader has used expletives in talking about US President Barack Obama and vowed to end cooperation with the US military in fighting terrorism and patrolling the disputed South China Sea.
He has moved to boost economic and defence ties with China and Russia.
While Duterte is unpredictable, his behaviour has undermined US efforts to rally nations from Japan to Vietnam and Australia to stand up to China’s military assertiveness.
In doing so, he risks shifting from the 1951 Philippines-US defence treaty, which has been a bedrock of American influence in the region.
While Duterte has said he will respect the alliance, he has repeatedly stressed the need for an "independent foreign policy" and questioned the US’s willingness to intervene if China were to seize territory in the South China Sea.
"This could be the game-changer for the South China Sea situation in general and Sino-US regional competition specifically," says Zhang Baohui, director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
"Duterte’s foreign policy may dramatically shift the geostrategic picture of the region, leaving China in an advantageous position versus the US."
One of the biggest benefits for China is the potential for a deal over the South China Sea. Just weeks after Duterte took office, an arbitration panel ruled that China’s claims to most of the waterway had no legal basis — a win for the Philippines in a case brought by Duterte’s predecessor.
While Duterte has said he will respect the ruling, he has signalled he is open to talks with China, the country’s biggest trading partner, and he did not push for the ruling to be mentioned in the communique last week from a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Laos.
Before taking office, he said he would consider setting aside territorial disagreements to get a Chinese-built railway.
In July, Duterte sent former president Fidel Ramos to Hong Kong to explore common ground with China. Ramos later called for a bigger role for the Philippines under China’s plan to link ports and hubs throughout Asia to Europe.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Wednesday China was aware of reports on Duterte’s comments regarding military cooperation, but had no specifics. She said China "will work with the Philippines to promote and renew normal exchanges and co-operation in different fields".
"Let’s not be naive about this, there’s no other country that will benefit from our differences with the US and our other allies but China," says Lauro Baja, a former foreign affairs undersecretary.
"Whether we like it or not, we’re sending the wrong message to the US, China and our other allies with these actions and pronouncements."
China claims sovereignty over all features within a nine-dash line on a 1940s map enclosing more than 80% of the South China Sea. It says that gives it the right to interdict military ships close to its territory — a position the US opposes.
Fu Ying, who chairs the foreign affairs committee of China’s top legislative body, in September framed US-China tensions in the South China Sea as a fight over the freedom of navigation for naval warships and other noncommercial vessels within the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones of coastal states.
"The Chinese want the South China Sea to become a Chinese strait, with control of the maritime space and the air space above it," says Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. "That is the long-term game, and flipping Duterte over to Beijing’s side is part of the play."
China’s land reclamation and military buildup in the waters has pushed some neighbours closer to the US. The Obama administration has boosted military co-operation with nations such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
Still, at the summit last week in Laos, a spat with Obama over Duterte’s war on drugs and the thousands of deaths it has caused overshadowed any criticism of China.
"That’s a very bad scenario," says Hideki Makihara, a senior legislator in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, referring to a potential Philippines alignment with China. In that case, "at least we need Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries surrounding the South China Sea in our group".
For now, US officials are emphasising the benefits of defence ties with the Philippines. "We’ve got a wide range of shared concerns and shared interests, and the US and the Philippines have been able to work effectively together in a variety of areas to advance our mutual interests," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this week.
A shift towards China may be difficult for Duterte to sustain. If China refuses to make any tangible concessions on the South China Sea, Duterte may face a domestic backlash, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant political science professor at De La Salle University in Manila.
"This is precisely why security relations with the US will remain indispensable for the Philippines," he wrote in an article for the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
Still, the US can no longer expect the same level of strategic deference and diplomatic support. "This is the new normal in Philippines-US relations."